The Lure Of Instant Gratification

          The economic condition of many parts of the world is currently looking worse than a few years ago. Thus many people are feeling poorer these days even if by standards of the developing and under-developed world, they are living comfortably.

This leads to an interesting question of behavior about how we respond to financial opportunities when we may be thinking about poverty, that is does our mood control our financial decisions or are we the creatures of cold financial logic that we would like to claim to be? Lei Lui et al have popped that question to groups of undergraduates and reported out in this week’s PLoS one (1).

The main experiment was to show groups either lots pictures of extreme poverty or luxurious affluence.  They then played a game with them – psychologists do like playing games. In this game each individual was given a choice of accepting a small amount of cash right away or waiting 3 days to receive more. They had to do this 64 times and were given the information that one of their choices would be randomly chosen to happen at the end of the game.

The results showed that those exposed to pictures of poverty were more likely to go for immediate gratification than wait to get richer.

Another two groups were exposed to the lottery of life by being given a basic payment and then drawing a card that would either give them a fat bonus or nothing.  They were all aware of what other people were getting. Again, those who were in the no bonus group were more likely to go for the ‘jam today, rather than jam tomorrow’ in the post-game testing.

This leaves me a little concerned as we have an election looming where the financial choices appear to be tax cuts for all us wannabe rich guys or a longer term rebuilding of a prosperous society. Our desire for instant gratification is likely to bite most of us in the backside as we won’t get past the wannabe stage to become an actual rich person.


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