By Katherine Schreiber

Do you struggle to control your impulses in the moment, choosing smaller but more immediate rewards (a lesser sum of money, say, or a more immediate temptation like chocolate) rather than holding out for larger rewards (more money, greater odds at fitting into those skinny jeans)?

For decades, the thinking has been that if only we could all hone our willpower muscles, we'd all be able to say more no's to shorter term gains — and thus reap more benefits associated with waiting. A new study by University of California, Berkeley, researchers Adrianna Jenkins and Ming Hsu has recently discovered an alternative to the now classic "willpower approach to holding our horses when making decisions. It involves reframing our options so that we fully understand (and perhaps feel) the consequences of our choices, as opposed to proverbially biting our tongues. 

Jenkins and Hsu conducted two experiments in which they tested the effects of re-framing on subjects’ willingness to wait for larger rewards. In the first, Jenkins and Hsu asked 122 participants to rate the desirability of various rewards which were presented independently (i.e., Option A: $8 tomorrow; Option B:$10 in 30 days) or as a sequence (i.e., Option A: $8 tomorrow, $0 in 7 days; Option B: $0 tomorrow and $10 in 7 days).

Flickr | Freddie Alequin
Source: Flickr | Freddie Alequin

When options were framed independently participants were more likely to choose the sooner, smaller reward. (This replicated previous research.) But when options were presented in a sequence participants were more likely to hold out for larger ones.

Jenkins and Hsu then repeated the experiment with 203 additional participants. This time, however, they were curious about how being presented with either frame would influence the degree to which participants imagined the consequences of their actions. So they split all subjects into two groups and presented one with an independent prompt (this time the stakes were higher: Option A: $100 tomorrow; Option B: $120 in 30 days) and the other with a sequential prompt (Option A: $100 tomorrow and $0 in 30 days; Option B: $0 tomorrow and $120 in 30 days). Afterward, each participant was asked to rate how vividly they had imagined receiving each amount ($0 tomorrow, $100 tomorrow, $0 in 30 days, $120 in 30 days).

As expected, Jenkins and Hsu found that reframing the receipt of rewards as a sequence (instead of as independent events) lead to greater imagination of potential outcomes. What’s more, imagination of longer term outcomes was equally strong as it was for shorter term outcomes in the sequence condition. This contrasted with a greater focus on short-term rewards seen in the independent condition and also in prior research on short and long term rewards.

Finally, Jenkins and Hsu wanted to see whether the imagination triggered by seeing reward options as sequential relied upon different brain regions than did willpower, that long assumed mechanism of hanging in for the long haul. So the researchers snuggled 42 participants into an fMRI scanner and exposed them to independent and sequential prompts.

When subjects mulled over sequential prompts they displayed more activity in regions of their brains associated with imagination (namely: the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate, and hippocampus). Though the researchers were well aware that activation of these areas alone cannot rule out the contribution of other processes apart from imagination upon the greater exertion of patience resulting from considering options in a sequential frame, they believe that the combination of self-reported imagination and the activation of the above “regions of interest” implicate imagination as a strong contributor to waiting for more.

"We know people often have difficulty being patient," Jenkins said in a press release. "Our findings suggest that imagination is a possible route for attaining patience that may be more sustainable and practical than exerting willpower."

In other words, rather than relying solely on willpower next time you’re faced with an option to wait to receive a larger reward, it may be worth your while to deploy imagination — that is: envision the benefits of the later reward and envision the downsides of getting a reward sooner but having less of it to enjoy as time goes on.

"There is a long tendency of behavioral interventions, ranging from promoting healthy eating to reducing drug dependence, to appeal to willpower,” Hsu added in the press release. “For example, 'commit to be fit' or 'don't do drugs.' Our findings highlight the potential benefits of interventions that change the nature of the impulses themselves by encouraging people to imagine the consequences of their choices."

Future research may wish to investigate whether folks who are more creative, and thus may have more colorful imaginations, are better able to imagine various consequences and thus make more informed decisions. 

Equally important, however, is to factor in the consequences of scarcity and desperation that may undermine even the most imaginative and patient person's decision-making skills. If someone has little to no savings whatsoever and lives paycheck to paycheck they may not have the luxury of waiting until a later date to receive a larger sum of money than what they would be given immediately. (Though perhaps they may make a greater effort if the amount of money to be gained at a later date is substantially larger.)

Flickr | CafeCredit
Source: Flickr | CafeCredit

Additionally, one has to factor trust into the willingness to wait equation. If I don't know your character and you are handing me a $100 bill now but saying that if I forgo this amount for a future payout of, say, $200, I certainly wouldn't agree unless we signed a contract. Even then, how could I trust I wouldn't have to take you to small claims court to obtain this promised fee? (Also: is that before or after taxes and will the $200 still be in cash? Okay, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.)

All this isn't to knock the upsides of deploying imagination when we're choosing between several rewards. But it's a reminder that there are numerous reasons people may not want to (or be able to) wait to obtain a larger sum of money — factors that go well beyond mere willpower or the ability to imagine it reframe options. If folks do indeed envision all the consequences of their options and choose not to wait for a larger reward to be delivered at a later date, this may not always mean they are making a misguided decision. Sometimes, you do just need to make rent.

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