Present bias: how instant gratification impacts your long-term goals

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How many times have you heard the phrases “live for the moment”, “you only live once”, or “seize the day”? This advice may sound great for adding some spontaneity to your life, but seizing short-term opportunities can lead you to settle for a small present reward rather than wait for a larger future reward. This tendency is known as the present bias. It may feel good at the time, but the present bias can negatively impact long-term planning, decision making and productivity.

The neuroscience of the present bias

The classic experiment that is used to illustrate whether the present bias is at play is to ask, “would you prefer $100 today, or $110 in one week?” The desire for instant reward will see many taking $100 immediately, rather than choosing to await the better, but delayed reward. Preferring smaller instant rewards rather than waiting for larger future ones is known as being present-biased.

The present bias is not a new phenomenon. Notions of the pursuit of instant gratification date back to the ancient Greeks, and modern psychological research into this cognitive bias began in the 1930s.

But it was not until 1968 that the term “present bias” was coined by Edmund Phelps and Robert Pollak. Their model of hyperbolic discounting described the tendency many people have to discount larger, future rewards in favour of smaller, immediate ones.

A study was designed to show neurological responses within the brain when participants were asked to make decisions for other people. The research team, led by Dr Konstanze Albrecht, found that there was a much stronger activation in reward-related areas of the brain when participants were asked to make decisions that would lead to an immediate reward.

Conversely, if the reward would not be experienced for some time, and therefore represented delayed gratification, there was far less activation within the reward centres of the brain. Similar patterns were also observed in the emotion centres of the brain.

Various scientific studies have investigated the contributions of different areas of the brain involved in the present bias. For instance, Dr Marc Wittmann and colleagues asked individuals to make a hypothetical choice between an immediate reward and a reward that would be delayed for at least a year.

The researchers discovered that when participants indicated that they would rather wait for the delayed future reward, strong activation was seen within the posterior insular cortex, a structure that lies beneath the outer folds of the brain. In contrast, decisions associated with an immediate reward led to activation within the corpus striatum, a component of the reward system that lies deep within the brain.

Wittmann and colleagues concluded that those who have a strong neurological activation within the corpus striatum may be present-biased, leading to a desire to seek instant gratification and difficulty waiting for delayed rewards — even if being patient could lead to greater overall success.

How the present bias impacts your success

It’s tempting to take a reward that is available right now, but this cognitive bias can negatively impact your future self. For example, you may work extremely hard to get a place on a law degree course, but then give in to the present bias and spend most of your time socialising with your new friends at the expense of your exams.

Being offered a higher salary can cause us to forget about our long-term career goals, while being patient and waiting a little longer might lead to the opportunity to create your dream role and potentially an even larger salary.

Impulsivity is strongly associated with the present bias, and the desire for instant gratification can lead to reckless spending. Rather than putting money aside for a long-term investment, we might choose to spend that money on “feel-good” purchases. Booking flights, excursions, tours or theatre tickets can be triggered by a need to escape the treadmill of daily life.

The present bias can also lead to procrastination. Rather than making progress on a project well before the deadline, you might fall prey to a more instant reward, such as watching a TV series. This activity feels good at the time but leads to additional stress when you then have to rush to complete the work.

Thankfully, there are practical ways to manage the present bias and avoid its negative impact on decision making, long-term planning, and productivity.

Strategies to manage the present bias

The most important aspect of managing the present bias consists in staying mindful of your long-term goals so you don’t fall prey to the dangers of instant gratification. Here are three simple strategies you can use to keep your goals in mind and be careful when faced with instant rewards:

  1. Write down your long-term goals. You can do this exercise on paper or in your note-taking tool of choice. Create a list of all your long-term goals, whether there are things you want to achieve this year or over the course of the next few years. When faced with a choice between different rewards, refer back to your list to ensure your goals are not overshadowed by the lure of instant gratification.
  2. Delay new purchases until tomorrow. Did you find a shiny new toy you feel like you need to buy? If you’re in a physical store, snap a photo or the product; or copy-paste the link to your note-taking tool if you’re in an online store. Leave it until the day after to decide whether you still want to make the purchase. The extra friction will lower your impulsivity levels and allow time to make an informed decision.
  3. Follow the Ten Minute Rule. If you need to complete a task but find yourself procrastinating, tell yourself you will start it right now for just ten minutes. Once you get started, you will probably find yourself in a good state of flow, which means you may work at it for much longer than ten minutes. The Ten Minute Rule will reduce the impact of the present bias on your productivity.

The present bias can impact our long-term plans, cause reckless decision making, and reduce our productivity. Our desire for instant gratification can be managed by keeping your medium to long-term goals in mind and trying to delay impulsive decisions. By making future-focused choices now, you can look forward to reaping the benefits in the months and years to come.

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