Friday, September 23, 2011

Patience may be a virtue, but it is also really hard.

My dog eats two meals a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.  She is trained to sit until the bowl is on the floor before she leaps to start eating.  She does it, but it is a real challenge.  She gets excited from the moment that she sees the food being put in the bowl, and it requires a tremendous act of will to keep from leaping to the bowl before it is set down.

This daily routine has an important lesson for behavior change.

Animals (like my dog) have a hard time waiting for a good thing.  Even if I set things up so that she would get more food in a few minutes if she could wait, she would have a lot of trouble waiting.  The idea that something now is more valuable than even more later is called delay discounting.  Animals of all types have a high discount rate.  That is, they have a hard time being patient.  They would rather have something now than more of it later.  This is true, even when the delay is just a few seconds or a minute. 

So, what does this have to do with you?

As humans, we pride ourselves on having some patience.  The dog can hardly wait to snap at her meal, but we can wait until the entire table is served before digging in. 

That pride may be misplaced.

A study by Koji Jimura, Joel Myerson, Joseph Hilgard, Todd Braver, and Leonard Green in the December, 2009 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review makes the point that we’re a lot more like animals than we’d like to think.  In their study, they brought thirsty people to the lab and gave them choices between a small amount of a drink of their choice immediately (juice or water) or a larger amount some time in the near future.  The wait times ranged between 5 seconds and a minute.  The people in the study were told that a new choice would be given at a fixed interval, so they would not get more chances to make choices if they always chose the immediate option.

People who selected the immediate drink, were given a chance to drink right away.  Those who selected the larger drink had to sit through the delay period before getting the chance to drink. 

People in this study showed a very high rate of delay discounting, just as animals do.  That is, unless people were offered a lot more juice to wait, they tended to select the immediate drink.

What does this mean for you?

These results make clear that we are not that much different than other animals in our ability to delay our rewards.  If there is a small reward in front of us now, it is hard to give it up for the promise of a bigger reward in the future.  Short-term temptations put a strong pull on us.

So, how do you succeed in changing your behavior? 

If you are trying to lose weight and you have the choice between a slice of pie now or being thin in the future, you are almost always going to take the piece of pie now.  If you are trying to stop smoking, the cigarette being offered to you is going to be much more attractive to you than your future good health. 

You have to remove the immediate option from your environment.  If you want to lose weight, don’t look at the dessert menu, and don’t keep sweets at home.  If you want to stop smoking, don’t stand outside with your friends while they have a cigarette. 

Don’t put yourself in the position of having to protect big rewards in the future from the small ones in your path right now.