More Patience? Imagine That!

More Patience? Imagine That!

A way to increase patience without relying on sheer willpower.


After a week of Spring Break with my kids, trying to take care of their needs while also working from home, I’m reaching the outer limits of my patience. What if there was a way to train myself to become more patient?

Past research into this subject by scientists has usually focused on increasing willpower, but a new study suggests that instead, using imagination is a way to becoming more patient.

“Whereas willpower might enable people to override impulses, imagining the consequences of their choices might change the impulses,” wrote study author Adrianna Jenkins, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. “People tend to pay attention to what is in their immediate vicinity, but there are benefits to imagining the possible consequences of their choices.”

To conduct the research, Jenkins and Ming Hsu, an associate professor of marketing and neuroscience, used a monetary award for participants. They were given choices about how to receive this monetary award, which stayed the same, but how it was framed, or expressed, was different. One group was told they could receive $100 tomorrow, or $120 in 30 days—this was the “independent” frame. The other group was told that they could receive $100 tomorrow and no money in 30 days, or no money tomorrow and $120 in 30 days. This was called a “sequence” frame. Same results financially, but different communication.

It turned out that people in the sequence frame group were able to better imagine the consequence of their choices. One participant, for example, wrote, “It would be nice to have the $100 now, but $20 more at the end of the month is probably worth it because this is like one week’s gas money.” Participants who had the independent frame presented to them demonstrated less imagination. One participant commented, “I’d rather have the money tomorrow even if it's a lesser amount. I can get the things I need instead of waiting. Why wait a month for just $20 more?”

The more participants imagined the consequences of their choices, the more they were able to be patient in order to receive the greater reward. “We know people often have difficulty being patient,” Jenkins wrote. “Our findings suggest that imagination is a possible route for attaining patience that may be more sustainable and practical than exerting willpower.”

Which is good, because willpower, as many of us can attest, won’t always cut it!

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.

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