By Charles Q. Choi, Live Science Contributor
Published: 06/23/2014 03:02 PM EDT on LiveScience
The way the consequences of choices are presented can help people boost their self-control and delay gratification, researchers say.
These new findings could help in areas wherever delaying gratification is needed, such as diet, exercise, finance, addiction, crime and politics, scientists added.
Willpower can help people delay gratification and avoid less valuable rewards that are available immediately to get more valuable rewards later. However, using self-control to delay gratification can be exhausting, and often fails. [7 Diet Tricks That Really Work]
"I became interested in studying self-control before applying to graduate school, when I worked as a homeless outreach specialist in New York City," said lead study author Eran Magen, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "I met a lot of people living through hard times who wanted to get better, but clearly stumbled along the way. It became very clear to me that the ability to make choices that are good for us in the long term is clearly important for a good life, not just for homeless people, but for regular people living regular lives."
As Magen pursued his doctorate, he reviewed prior studies investigating decision-making. "I noticed questions were always asked in the same format — 'Do you want X now or a bigger Y later?'" Magen said. "I felt there was something missing there. Intuition led me to explore what happened if we asked, 'Do you want to receive X now and not receive a bigger Y later, or do you want to receive a bigger Y later but not receive X now?' My intuition was that people might often choose the bigger reward later."
Presenting multiple choices
Magen and his colleagues asked 182 volunteers to choose between pairs of immediate and delayed rewards. These choices were presented either in a traditional, so-called "hidden-zero" format, such as "Would you prefer to receive $6 today or $8.50 in 46 days?" or presented in a novel, so-called "explicit-zero" format, such as "Would you prefer to receive $6 today and $0 in 45 days, or $0 today and $8.50 in 46 days?" Past research suggested that when people are presented with choices, including all future outcomes, it reduces biases people can have toward immediate rewards that contribute to impulsive behavior.
The scientists found the explicit-zero format made immediate rewards less appealing. This led volunteers to choose delayed rewards more often than immediate rewards.
In a follow-up study, Magen and his colleagues scanned the brains of 23 volunteers as they made choices involving either hidden-zero or explicit-zero formats. The researchers found that presenting choices in an explicit-zero format compared with a hidden-zero format decreased activity in the dorsal and ventral striatum, brain regions linked to responses to rewards. Also, explicit-zero formats often led volunteers to choose delayed rewards, and doing so did not increase activity in the dorsolateral
prefrontal cortex, a brain region linked to willpower.
"We are able to help people make more foresighted choices, to show more self-control without expending more willpower, just by presenting choices in a different way," Magen told Live Science. "We can make better choices without having to take more effort to making those choices."
Eating better, spending smarter
These findings suggest that presenting choices properly might help people make financial decisions that are better for them in the long run. Future research could reveal this strategy might help people in many other situations where delaying gratification can get better results.
"The classic example is eating better — not eating something now can be healthier later," Magen said. "The same is true with exercise. Another particularly exciting area is addiction and substance abuse — it's very clear there what the right thing to do or not do is, but doing the right thing can be hard to tackle with willpower alone."
Such research could also influence politics.
"Mitigating climate change is an excellent example," Magen said. "One of my co-authors, Sam McClure, does research on decision-making related to climate change, and is interested in applying the concepts we learned with our study here to that arena."
Future research will also look "at making decisions that don't only involve small gains immediately versus large gains later, but also losses — how feeling a little bad now could lead to good later," Magen said.
The scientists detailed their findings online today (June 23) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.