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Biology, Psychology, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Can you wait for a reward?

I’m someone who is in it for the long haul. I can put in the time and effort now even if I know there will be no reward for awhile. This, I would assume makes it easier for me to do things like workout or even to have worked on and completed my degrees. On the other hand, some individuals are more likely to take $5 today than $10 in two weeks. As someone on the other end of the spectrum I sometimes wish that I could indulge in instant gratification. Buying that item right now seems like it could be fun. Or eating all of the cookie batter before I actually bake any cookies seems like it would be somewhat satisfying. But then I think about the alternatives. I save money because I didn’t buy that thing and ended up getting it cheaper elsewhere or deciding I didn’t need it. I roll all my cookies out and then bake just a few while I freeze the rest, giving me warm chocolate chip cookies regularly instead of some tasty cookie dough once.

I had never really thought about this but there is a flip side to the instant gratification coin: risk acceptance versus aversion. Here is a super basic example that came to mind when I first learned about this. When you are eating a meal do you save your favourite food for the end and eat your least favourite first or do you eat your meal in reverse? Personally, I eat my favourite food at the end, unless it will be too cold by then to still be my favourite food. Generally speaking my least favourite food does not pose any risk to me other than not enjoying it so I’m not really avoiding or accepting any significant risks here, but take the example of people who are lactose intolerant but will weigh the reward (enjoying the food) against the later risk (feeling awful). Sometimes, the reward outweighs the risk, sometimes it doesn’t.

Enter delay discounting. Basically, delay discounting is discounting the risk or the reward because it will occur later. So, waiting two weeks for $10 might not be worth it when you could have $5 now but what about waiting two weeks for $50, is that worth it? People who prefer smaller rewards that they receive immediately tend to be more impulsive. They also tend to have higher risks of issues such as addiction and obesity. This makes sense, if you find working out unrewarding in the short term it is tempting to not work out even when the longer term risks are potentially significant. The possible future reward just isn’t enough to outweigh the lure of the immediate reward.

Obviously, finding ways to increase our willingness to wait for a reward could help with some huge societal challenges like addiction, obesity, and climate change. How does it help with climate change you may ask. Addressing climate change is going to require some intense and drastic life changes for most people. Generally speaking we don’t like change, therefore we perceive it as a risk. So the potential reward of saving the human species, not to mention all the other species and places that are at risk based on our current behaviour, just isn’t enough of a reward for us to change our behaviour. We like driving our SUVs now, around the corner and across the city, by ourselves. Some future where we aren’t plagued by extreme and devastating weather and we actually live with the planet just isn’t worth it. And the future in the face of climate change just isn’t enough of a risk for us to tolerate small discomforts now. After all, no one knows exactly what the devastation will be or when exactly it will occur so it’s pretty easy to discount heavily.

Okay, so back to the how do we address this. Well, it turns out that looking at pictures of nature, that’s right, you don’t even need to go into nature, has been shown to decrease impulsive decision making. Berry et al (2015) took this prior finding and decided to attempt to figure out why pictures of nature help to improve a person’s ability to wait for a reward. Although the results are still relatively preliminary, what they found was that looking at pictures of nature, compared to pictures of built environments, were also correlated with a different perception of time. The people looking at nature perceived the sessions as being longer compared to the people looking at built environments.

This needs more research to figure out exactly what is happening but it does make me wonder, does the desktop image I have up on my computer actually contribute to whether or not I make it to the gym after work? And if we painted natural environments onto the walls of the rooms where big decisions are made, I’m thinking government halls, and board rooms, and even the walls of our homes, would we make less impulsive choices?

As a side note, while this doesn’t affect me as I don’t consume caffeine Markham (2010) did his master’s research on whether or not caffeine affected delay discounting. It does not, so you aren’t more or less impulsive with or without your morning coffee. But you might be less impulsive if you went for a morning walk outside to wake up instead.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.



  1. Pingback: A dose of sugar makes the future seem worth waiting for | Connecting with Science - February 27, 2019

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