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How You Make Decisions Can Affect Your Patience

November 6th, 2017

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Would you rather have $5 today or $10 in a month? Eat a donut or an apple? Save for retirement or buy something new?

When making these choices, you’re weighing two kinds of options: a short-term reward that is worse for your longer-term outcomes, or a less immediately satisfying reward that’s better for your future.

But what if you could be more patient? Dr. Crystal Reeck, assistant professor of the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at the Fox School, has recently found that how you approach making these decisions can impact your ability to be patient and choose the longer-term option.

In Reeck’s study, participants chose between receiving smaller amounts of money delivered sooner (such as $44.80 in two weeks) or larger amounts of money delivered later (such as $51.50 in six weeks). Using mouse-tracking software, Reeck and her fellow researchers, Daniel Wall of Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Dr. Eric Johnson of Columbia Business School, tracked which pieces of information participants looked at as they hovered over the options.

About 50 percent of the participants took in all the information for the first option—the amount of money and time it would be delivered—and then all the information for the second option. The other half compared features between the options—first comparing the amounts of money, then comparing the delivery dates.

“What we found fascinating was not only were there these two groups of people with respect to their strategies, but they also differed in patience,” said Reeck, who is also the associate director of Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making. “People who were comparing between options were much more patient overall than those who were integrating the features of options.”

This increased patience when comparatively searching held true even when the research team manipulated the participants’ strategies. The team added a one-second delay in accessing information when hovering over a box on the screen, so that participants were subtly encouraged to search either comparatively (dollar vs. dollar, then time vs. time) or integratively (dollar and time vs. dollar and time).

“This change was so subtle that most people didn’t realize anything was different, yet it changed almost instantly how people made their choice,” said Eric Johnson, the Norman Eig Professor of Business and director of the Center for the Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School. “More importantly, it changed what they chose.” Participants who were assigned to search comparatively were more patient than those who were assigned to search integratively, regardless of how they searched before.

The results of the study indicate people are more likely to practice patience when the trade-off in value is easy to compare between options. “I’m a pretty impatient person. This research has helped me reframe the self-control decisions I struggle with as comparisons between salient options,” said Daniel Wall, a Ph.D. student in social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon. “My mom is always trying to give me junk food, but when I compare a bag of Peppermint Patties to not fitting into my jeans, it’s easier to abstain.”

For the researchers, they hope these insights encourage people to decide to save for retirement by anticipating how much the investment will grow in the future, or to choose an apple over a donut by considering the time on a treadmill needed to work off the pastry’s calories.

“Everyone encounters these intertemporal choices, often with decisions that are very important to us. Our research shows that by subtly changing how people search for information during these choices, we can encourage patience,” Reeck said.

Reeck’s paper, “Search Predicts and Changes Patience in Intertemporal Choice,” has been published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal.

Learn more about Fox School Research.

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