My dog is not very patient. If she senses that I might feed her a treat, she comes bounding over and sits begging. Once she is convinced that there is food for her, it is hard to get her to wait to eat something. But, people have a remarkable capacity to wait for good outcomes. College students spend years studying in order to improve their prospects for jobs later in life. We skip afternoon snacks in order to save our appetite for a great evening dinner.
Of course, we are not completely patient. There are many times where we do pick something good for us in the short-term rather than waiting for something better in the future. Losing weight is hard, because it is more pleasant to eat good food now than to be in good shape in the future.
A 2013 paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes by Xianchi Dai and Ayelet Fishbach explores the possibility that waiting to make a choice may actually help us to be more patient.
The idea is that when you have to wait to make a choice, that increases the value of that choice to you. The more valuable the choice is, the more that you want to make sure you get the best option. So, you may be more willing to wait even longer for the best option if you had to wait to make the choice in the first place.
In one study, participants were contacted by email and asked to make a choice. They were choosing between getting $50 on some date and getting $55 20 days later. So, the choice was basically about whether people would wait 20 days to get an extra $5. Participants were told that 2 of them would actually receive what they chose, so it was important to choose carefully.
Two groups were told about the decision and were asked to make their choice immediately. The Near Future group chose between getting $50 in 3 days and $55 in 23 days. In this condition, about 30% of participants chose the larger reward. The Distant Future group chose between getting $50 in 30 days or $55 in 50 days. This increased time frame made people a little more patient. About 55% of the participants in this condition chose the larger reward.
The Waiting Period group received an email telling them about the options and then telling them they would receive another email 27 days later when they could make the choice. This group was choosing between $50 in 3 days and $55 in 23 days. So, this group had the same options as the Near Future group, though their actual delay was the same length as the Distant Future group. For these participants, about 85% chose the larger reward.
Other studies in this paper used choices for other kinds of products like iPods and chocolate. These studies looked at measures of the value people gave to the choice and found that people who had to wait to make the choice felt that the options were more valuable to them. This greater value made them more interested in getting the better item.
So, does waiting always make you more patient?
The researchers also explored a slightly different choice. Sometimes, you make a selection and then have the option to pay extra money to receive your item more quickly. For example, on-line retailers like Amazon will give you the option to pay extra to have something shipped overnight for a larger fee.
The researchers speculated that if waiting makes the item feel more valuable, then you might be more willing to pay to receive that item quickly. In one study, participants were offered the chance to get a box of Godiva chocolates in 48 days or to pay $3 to get that same box of chocolates in 6 days. The researchers manipulated how long the wait felt by either asking them how long it had been since they last had a Godiva chocolate or just asking them to make the choice immediately. (This manipulation made people selecting between a smaller box of chocolates sooner or a larger box of chocolates later more likely to take the larger box of chocolates later.)
In this case, participants were more likely to pay $3 to get the chocolates quickly if they felt like they had waited a long time than if they felt like they were choosing immediately. That is, the waiting period can make a single option feel more valuable and can actually make people more impatient.
What does this mean for you?
If you are trying to be patient, you need to think about the situation you are in. If you are choosing from among a set of options, waiting to make a choice can help you to focus on the overall value of the options rather than on the time period until you will get them. If you are choosing when to receive an item, though, then the waiting period may focus you on the time period itself, which can decrease your patience.