Power of Haas Ideas

Be More Patient? Imagine That

Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu finds that imagination is a pathway toward patience

Patience, as they say, is a virtue. And new research shows it’s only as far away as our imagination.

By using functional MRI (fMRI) to look inside the brain, neuroscientists Adrianna Jenkins, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher, and Ming Hsu, a Haas associate professor of marketing and neuroscience, found that imagining an outcome before acting upon an impulse may help increase patience without relying on increased willpower. Their research is forthcoming in Psychological Science.

The researchers’ approach stands in contrast to previous studies, which have mostly focused on the exertion of willpower to positively affect a person’s patience.

“Whereas willpower might enable people to override impulses, imagining the consequences of their choices might change the impulses,” Jenkins says.

Hsu and Jenkins conducted two experiments that relied on “framing effects,” making small changes to how options are presented or framed.

For example, under an “independent” frame, a participant could receive $100 tomorrow or $120 in 30 days. Under a “sequence” frame, a participant had to decide whether to receive $100 tomorrow and no money in 30 days or no money tomorrow and $120 in 30 days.

The first experiment replicated past research, which found that framing outcomes as sequences promotes patience. The 122 participants saw both independent- and sequence-framed options and expressed stronger preferences for the larger, delayed reward when choices were framed as sequences.

The second experiment involved 203 participants who had to make a choice based on one frame: 104 people chose under an independent frame; the other 99 chose under a sequence frame.

The result: participants in the sequence frame reported imagining the consequences of their choices more than those in the independent frame.

One participant wrote, “It would be nice to have the $100 now, but $20 more at the end of the month is probably worth it because this is like one week’s gas money.”

The more participants imagined the consequences of their choices, the more they were able to be patient in order to receive the greater reward.

In contrast, participants exposed to the independent frame demonstrated less imagination.

Said one participant, “I’d rather have the money tomorrow even if it’s a lesser amount. I can get the things I need instead of waiting. Why wait a month for just $20 more?”

Using fMRI, Jenkins and Hsu measured participants’ brain activation during the experiments.

Areas of the brain that process imagination became more active when participants were more patient during sequence framing. However, in the independent framing, the researchers found patience more strongly linked to brain regions associated with willpower.

“There is a long tendency of behavioral interventions to appeal to willpower. For example, ‘commit to be fit’ or ‘don’t do drugs,’” Hsu says. “Our findings highlight the potential benefits of interventions that change the nature of the impulses themselves by encouraging people to imagine the consequences of their choices.”

And imagination may just be a more practical and sustainable path to patience than exerting willpower. —Pamela Tom

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Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu