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Mindful : December 2016
marshmallow now rather than two later doesn’t mean you are doomed to a “tyranny of now.” In general, people who value future rewards only slightly less than present ones are willing to make sacrifices today for a better tomorrow. We study today (sending regrets to the friends who asked us to hang out) in order to reap the reward of good grades; we save now so we have money in the future. Although the marshmallow experiment has been interpreted as meaning that the degree of one’s immediacy bias is innate, new research shows that instead it depends on context, on what other options are available, and on how they’re described—that is, by factors beyond your charac- ter. Which means you can manipulate that context if you need help taming the tyranny of now. The Decimal Effect One such influence is the “decimal effect.” Asked whether they’d like $9 today or $11 in a week versus $8.44 today or $10.32 in a week, people are more likely to choose to take the money now if choosing between the round numbers. Less deliberation is required to process round num- bers, which leaves your attention free to focus on the delay (boo, hiss). If you need an incentive to save money, tell yourself the choice is, say, $219.66 today vs. $377.92 (not round numbers) in the future; it may distract your attention from today vs. tomorrow enough to focus on less money vs. more. The Magnitude Effect Then there’s the “magnitude effect,” in which higher amounts reduce the tyranny of now. Even people with the utmost self-control and ability to postpone gratification would take $20 today instead of $30 in six months; $10 just doesn’t seem like enough of an incentive to wait half a year to go buy myself a nice lunch with this free money. But we’d postpone a $1,000 reward in favor of $1,500, even though the incentive is the same 50%. Contrary to what many researchers assumed, people consider the absolute and not the relative cost of waiting. People tagged in lab stud- ies as having a strong immediacy bias might have no such thing if the rewards had been larger. Similarly, imagining specific ways to spend future rewards—literally, if the reward is money saved and invested, or figuratively, if the reward is more education or health—makes people more likely to forego an immediate reward. Rather than saying, oh how nice, I’ll have $57,485 when I retire, think of specific uses for the money—even in fine detail like having “$65 for dinner out every week.” Also tell yourself that you’re going to reap that reward on, say, April 6, 2039, not “in 22 years”: we’re better at imagining a future on a specific date. Another strategy is to make the $0 in the future explicit. Tell yourself the choice is spend- ing $1,075 today on that great laptop but having $0 in 30 days versus $0 today but $1,176 in a few months (let’s assume you put it in a hot mutual fund). Making the zero in the future explicit leads to a greater willingness to postpone imme- diate indulgences, Phelps said: it makes you “focus on the unpleasant future consequences of selecting the immediate reward.” If some of these ways of thinking sound like the sort of things mindfulness can foster, you’re right. A 2014 study by researchers at Utah State University found that such training (a 60-to-90-minute session) reduced the tyranny of now, making people willing to accept less for postponing gratification. That may seem sur- prising, since mindfulness meditation is about the present moment, and the nonjudgmental observation of the thoughts and feelings cours- ing through your mind. Yet with practice, it can make us value the future more highly. When Cause-and-Effect Gets Out of Hand The reason I gave examples of how certain fram- ings can affect our immediacy bias was not just for self-help. It was also to point out that many lab studies, which almost never controlled for → RESEARCH Marshmallow Test In the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, a series of studies in the late ’60s and early ’70s, children between 3 and 6 years old were left inaroomwitha treat. If they waited 15 minutes, they were told, another treat would ap- pear. If they were not able to delay their gratification and gobbled up the treat, no sec- ond treat for them! Follow-up studies claimed that those who waited had better life out- comes in terms of health, education, and well-being. The study has been widely quot- ed in popular lit- erature to warn of the perils of being unable to control yourself. Recent research suggests the effects of not delaying gratifi- cation have been overstated. 22 mindful December 2016 brain science