Penn study weighs instant gratification vs. more prosperous future

Given the choice between receiving $20 immediately or $40 a month from now, which would you pick?

“About half of people take the money now and about half take it in a month,” says Joseph Kable, the Baird Term Associate Professor of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences. “We’re interested in the differences between those two groups.”

Broadly speaking, Kable studies impulsivity and delayed gratification. His latest research, conducted with fifth-year Ph.D. student Trishala Parthasarathi and published in Frontiers in Psychology, looked at whether intense visualization of the future would make people more likely to defer—in this case, taking the larger dollar figure later.

What they found was counterintuitive.

“People who have imaginations with more vivid details are more likely to not delay gratification,” Kable says.

Parthasarathi puts it another way: “Better visualizers tend to be more impulsive when they’re making choices about a smaller reward, accepting it immediately rather than waiting for a larger reward in the future,” she says.

In addition, Kable and Parthasarathi discovered that training people to become better visualizers actually made them more impulsive; though those people improved in their ability to envision a scene clearly, their desire to wait for a reward decreased.

The study included approximately 40 people split into two groups, one focused on visualization, the other on relaxation training. For four weeks, twice a week, participants came into the lab for hour-long sessions with a health-and-wellness counselor.

“People in the visualization group would think about two future goals, one at a time, and the process used to achieve each, how they felt after they achieved each, and so on,” Parthasarathi says. “Those in the relaxation group were trained to think in the present, so breath awareness and attention to your body—nothing related to thinking about the future.”

Tests given at the start and end of the month, which included decision-making tasks and self-report questionnaires, provided the researchers a basis for comparison. And although the results turned out differently than they expected, they believe their work has real-world implications regarding impulsivity.

Kable mentions the example of an adolescent who takes the instant prize. He or she tends to do worse in school and is more likely to start smoking—and have a harder time quitting, too. Forward thinkers who are more future-oriented are more likely to succeed with smoking cessation.

Upcoming research in this realm will look at other potential ways to improve patience.

“Perhaps approaches that are less about having you vividly think about your future goals and more about relaxation in the present moment will work more effectively,” Kable says.

Instant Gratification