The High Cost of Impatience

Delaying instant gratification leads to better decision-making—and health.

by Polly Campbell

April 2016

In 1992 Timothy Hall knew he was weeks away from an overseas deployment by the US Army. Still, he couldn’t wait to start the life he would lead upon his return. So he signed a year’s lease for a home and moved his wife from her family in Oregon to Kentucky.

Forty-five days later Hall was gone, and within a couple of months his wife returned to her family and friends in Oregon to await his return. “I ended up leasing a home that nobody was living in for a year,” he recalls. “It was a mistake.”

Hall, 47, a retired master sergeant and now a point-of-care specialist at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, says he’s always been impatient. “If I want something now, I’m going to go do it,” he says. “And that has cost me,” like replacing his fuel-efficient car with a gas-guzzling truck when gas prices were at an all-time high.

Hall, like many of us, often chooses instant gratification over the long-term consequences, but that kind of impatience is affecting our health and finances, say researchers.

In a recent study, those who acted impatiently tended to make poorer nutritional decisions and gained more weight, says lead researcher Charles Courtemanche, PhD, a health economist at Georgia State University.

With cheaper food readily available everywhere from store counters to curbside drive-through outlets, impatient people are more likely to eat more frequently or pick up a quick meal on the spot rather than waiting for a more nutritious meal at home. This kind of impatience is helping to fuel the nation’s obesity epidemic, Courtemanche says.

It also costs money. Brian Cadena, PhD, economist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has found that impatient people earn as much as 13% less than their more-patient counterparts because they are less likely to take care of their health and acquire the skills, knowledge and other “human capital” they need to do well.

Technology isn’t helping. Ramesh Sitaraman, PhD, a computer science professor at UMass Amherst, studied the habits of 6.7 million Internet users and found people were willing to wait only two seconds for a video to load before moving on to a different application.

That desire to have it now is even dangerous: More than 26% of all car accidents are caused by cellphone use, according to the National Safety Council. People are reaching for their phones, texting, talking and dialing while driving rather than waiting a few minutes to pull over or arrive at their destination.

“It’s really hard,” Hall says. “If I’m feeling anxious or down, I’m more impatient and my spending habits reflect that. There is that little euphoric feeling that comes with getting ‘that thing’ that makes me feel good.”

Emotions trigger our impatience, confirms Ye Li, PhD, assistant professor of management and marketing at the University of California, Riverside. Li’s research shows, for example, that sadness makes us want to go out and do something—buy, eat, smoke or drink, for instance—to ease the pain.

Yet our emotions can also help us avoid short-sighted decisions, Li says.

In one Psychological Science study he co-authored, participants who were asked to think and write about something they were grateful for were more likely to forgo an immediate, smaller financial payoff for a larger monetary reward paid months later. Gratitude causes people to think more about the long-term, Li says, which eases the need for instant gratification. He adds that gratitude helps people feel fulfilled so they are less likely to be triggered by uncomfortable emotions that can cause them to act rashly.

Thinking about the trade-offs can also curb impatience, Li says. Consider these questions: If I buy this now, what will I need to forgo? Is that worth it?

Controlling impatience can help restrain overeating.

Courtemanche says supermarket displays, food aromas and other details can trigger people to a “hot” or more impulsive state of mind. Those who deliberately pause will have an easier time weighing the instant benefits of immediate eating against the long-term consequences of weight gain.

Hall says he pays attention to his emotions before heading out to his favorite stores or hot-button sites.

“Sometimes I am more patient and very frugal,” he says. “Other times not so much. So I try not to put myself in situations where I may overspend during those times.”

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