Delayed Gratification And Social Trust
September 5, 2013

Trust Is A Key Factor In Ability To Delay Gratification

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

People who have problems delaying gratification are often seen as having a lack of impulse control, but a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggests that these people may not believe that gratification will still be there if they have to wait for it.

Previous studies have found that children who are able to delay gratification tend to eventually have higher SAT scores, be more socially conscious, become less obese as adults, and will be less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. However, these studies have not focused on how social trust factors into a person's decision to wait for a larger reward in the future.

"Most of the time, when people talk about delaying gratification, they talk about basic processes of evaluation and self-control," said study author Laura Michaelson, a University of Colorado, Boulder doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

The researchers said an individual’s decision not to delay gratification makes a lot more sense if they do not trust the reward-giver.

"If you don't trust someone, it's rational not to wait for them to give you $20 in a month instead of $15 now," said study co-lead author Alejandro de la Vega, also a doctoral student in CU-Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

To examine the role of social trust, study researchers recruited volunteers via Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an internet-based tool that scientists can use to connect with a large number of people from a wide array of backgrounds.

Participants were asked to read the profiles of three made-up characters and then score them on their credibility. The volunteers were then asked if they would take a smaller amount of money offered immediately from each fictional profile or a larger amount of money that the fictional character would give them later.

The results showed a direct connection between trustworthiness and the decision to delay gratification. A second experiment—which involved a larger study cohort and only one fictional profile—produced similar results.

"This offers an alternative explanation for why certain populations might be notoriously bad at delaying gratification or notoriously impulsive, like criminals and addicts," Michaelson said. "It had been chalked up to a lack of self-control. But it may be the case that they are poor at delaying gratification because they have low social trust."

The researchers said their findings could be useful in counseling children who have difficulty delaying gratification. The team suggested that creating environments where children can develop social trust may be more effective than simply having these children work on their self-control.

For adults, the study results could have significant meaning in the context of economic decision-making, de la Vega said. The new study indicates that how much an individual trusts an economic adviser could affect their decisions about saving and spending.

"These economic decisions are not being made in a complete vacuum," de la Vega said. "They might really be affected by how you perceive the person you're interacting with."

The researchers said they will follow up their latest study with research that involves participants interacting face-to-face with the people who are offering the two different rewards.

"There is a very real possibility (the) relationship between social trust and delaying gratification might be even more strong and even more salient when you're in a real situation," Michaelson said.