Character  &  Context

Patience Can Be Primed

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By Luke Wilmshurst

Every day, people make a countless number of choices, often without even realizing how small decisions can add up to have significant consequences in the long-run.

Whether it's making an effort to eat healthier food, or sticking with an exercise program, or saving money, over time these small actions can become the foundation of a better life in the future. The problem is, these activities are enjoyable right away, while the payoff for making these sacrifices is usually far enough in the distance that motivation becomes a problem.

This is the essence of intertemporal choice: understanding trade offs between receiving small rewards soon, and larger rewards later. One of the most famous experiments in this area was conducted by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s (SPSP) 2016 Legacy Award honoree Walter Mischel. In his now famous ‘marshmallow test’ patience, or self-control, was viewed as a trait that could be used to predict some pretty significant future life outcomes, including academic success and even criminal activity. Recent research has shifted focus from viewing self-control as an innate trait, to considering patience as a state that can be influenced by context, and encouraged through environmental cues.

Research by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago presented during their session at the 2016 SPSP Annual Convention entitled “It’s About Time: Exploring the Juncture of Time and Intrinsic Motivation,” revealed that taking pleasure in short-term sacrifices can lead to increased persistence toward achieving long-term goals. For example, consider a situation where someone is trying to stick with a workout program. Directing attention toward positive aspects, such as a good feeling after each workout, can be more effective than only using the ultimate long-range target as a motivator.

The University of Chicago’s Dan Bartels argues that one of the factors making this sacrifice more complicated is a disconnection between people and their future selves. This distance can be surprisingly large, with people often considering their future self to be so distant from who they are now, they are almost the equivalent to being a different person altogether.

When it comes to savings decisions, a person is much less likely to forgo a daily pleasure, like treating themselves to an expensive specialty coffee, and save the money instead, when this sacrifice is being made for a person one barely identifies with. This suggests an approach of priming people to think about their future, or imagine their lives years from now, to help them better identify with who they are making these sacrifices for.


Luke Wilmshurst is currently completing his masters in psychology, and carrying out research focused on decision making, executive function, self-regulation, and various forms of cognitive bias. 

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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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