Stories | August 18, 2014

How to make yourself more willing to wait (and another reason to say “thanks mum”)

Imagine you are due for a meeting with Human Resources to review your pension plan and set contributions for the coming year.

Glancing at your watch, a gift from your mother and father, you suddenly feel very grateful for them. Surprisingly, this sense of gratitude could affect your pension and other financial decisions with lasting consequences.

Evoking “gratitude” can help people improve their patience – tempering the desire for instant gratification, research from the United States published in June 2014 found.
We know that long-term savings goals, such as pensions, can suffer badly from humans’ love of instant gratification (that holiday this month, over a more comfortable life later).
So, in the case of the pension contribution scenario above, showing “economic patience” would mean putting more money away for later instead of enjoying it immediately as part of your take-home pay.

Thanks – I’ll wait for a bigger reward
The academics – from Harvard, Northeastern University and the University of California – tested this by asking people to recall an event which made them feel grateful and then to write about it in detail. The participants were asked several questions about how they were feeling. After all of this, they were given a series of choices between getting a small cash payment now or a larger cash payment later.
Those who felt grateful seemed more patient, preferring the larger but delayed reward.

But sadness could cost you in the long run
Given that we are more patient when feeling gratitude, it makes sense that other emotions make a difference too.
And the difference is not always positive.
Sadness has been linked to greater impatience in earlier research from 2012.
It is too simplistic to say feeling good leads to patience and feeling bad stokes impulsivity.
The sadness study also found for example that disgust – another negative emotion – didn’t make a significant difference.
Likewise, happiness – another positive emotion – didn’t have the same effect on patience as gratitude.

What if I don’t have mum’s watch?
Although impatience doesn’t necessarily leave someone worse off (instant gratification can pay off occasionally), in many cases it can detrimental.
We know that people tend to discount the importance of decisions if the consequences lie a long way in the future – losing the edge that compound interest and other gains from planning ahead can bring.
Various techniques to combat this include commitment devices, improving the reliability of the future gain, and even by looking at an aged ‘selfie’ to keep in mind our future bank balance.
But the revelations about the effect of gratitude are so interesting because they seem to point to another way to improve patience.
Before making an important financial choice, it could be worthwhile to take stock of your emotions. Are you grateful, sad, or feeling another way?
A fleeting feeling may well have long-term effects on your bank balance.
And if prone to impulsivity, instead of exerting effort to override your impulses, it may be easier to remember all those things in life for which you are grateful.

Nathalie Spencer
Nathalie Spencer

Behavioural scientist at ING

Personal financeEmotionBehaviourPensions