Delaying gratification is hard.
You may have seen the adorable videos of kids in Walter Mischel’s classic experiments, in which one marshmallow is placed in front of a child. The child is told that the experimenter will leave the room and that the child will get two marshmallows if they simply avoid eating the marshmallow while the experimenter is out.
The children in these studies go through all kinds of gyrations to keep themselves from eating that one marshmallow.
Adults also have a lot of trouble delaying gratification: People pay extra to get faster delivery from online stores. And they accept small rewards in the present rather than waiting for longer rewards in the future.
A lot of psychological research has focused on what is called “intertemporal choice.” Basically, people are given the option of a small reward in a short period of time (the Smaller Sooner option) or a large reward in a longer period of time (the Larger Later option). When the options are money, people often require a lot more money to wait an extra period of time.
Is there a way to help people choose the Larger Later option? A paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes explored this issue. Researchers asked whether making people wait before they made a choice would actually make them more patient. In one study, participants chose between a Smaller Sooner option of $50 and a Larger Later option of $55. The time interval between the options was 20 days. (Not all participants would actually get the prize—they were being entered into a drawing for the prize they chose.)
For one group, the choice was made for the near future: They would get the sooner option in three days or the later option in 23 days. This group chose the Smaller Sooner option about 70 percent of the time. So they were not very patient.
For a second group, both options were later: One was in 30 days, the other in 50 days. This group was a bit more patient, selecting the Smaller Sooner option only about 45 percent of the time.
The authors reasoned that if people were forced to wait in order to even make the choice, though, that might make them more patient. So, a third group was informed that they had a choice between $50 in 30 days or $55 in 50 days, but that they would not actually be asked to select which option they wanted for another 27 days. This condition had elements of both of the previous choices. In some ways, it is like the 30-vs.-50-day choice, because that is when participants will actually get the prize. In other ways, it is like the 3-vs.-23-day choice—because when they actually select the Smaller Sooner option, it would be awarded in just three days.
Interestingly, participants were very patient in this situation: They selected the Smaller Sooner option only about 15 percent of the time.
Why does this happen? Another study suggests that a waiting period increases people’s perception of the value of an option, so that the Larger Later option is more valuable to people when they have to wait to make a choice. In this study, participants were selecting between two models of iPods that would be given away in a drawing. The iPod being given away as the Smaller Sooner option had fewer features than the one being given away in the Larger Later option. Participants made choices between intervals that were 25 days apart.
As in the previous study, some participants got a short-interval choice in which the Smaller Sooner option would be delivered in two days. A second group got a long-interval choice in which the Smaller Sooner option would be delivered in 15 days. A third group was told they would wait 13 days to make their choice and then chose between getting the Smaller Sooner option in two days or the Larger Later option in 27 days. As before, the group that had to wait before making their choices was the most patient.
After making their choice, though, participants rated how valuable the iPod was to them and how important it was for them to win it. Participants who had waited rated the iPods as most valuable, and wanted them the most. The wait made people value the best iPod the most, which made them most willing to wait an extra period of time.
One other study demonstrated that waiting did not actually make people more patient overall. In this study, participants were offered prizes consisting of a selection of Godiva chocolates. In this case, participants were asked how long it had been since they had last had chocolates. The amount of time since they last had chocolates was the “waiting time” in this study.
One group was given a choice between a Smaller Sooner option and a Larger Later option that were 42 days apart. This group showed the same effect as before: The longer it had been since people had chocolates, the longer they were willing to wait for the Larger Later option.
However, a second group got a slightly different set of choices: This group was given a choice between getting a large assortment of chocolate in 48 days or paying $3 to get that same assortment in 6 days. If the wait made people more patient, those who waited should be less willing to pay $3 to get the chocolates sooner than those who had not waited that long. In fact, the opposite was the case: The longer it had been since people last had chocolates, the more that they were willing to pay $3 to get the assortment sooner.
Putting this all together, then, if you need to help yourself wait for a larger option in the future, it is helpful to wait as long as possible to make the decision between the options. The waiting period does not make you more patient, but it does increase your sense of the value of the distant option. That can help you choose that larger option.