By nature, people are impatient; thus, a reward that we have to wait for has less subjective value than an immediate one. The further away in the future the reward is the less subjective value it has. Of course, not everybody is equally impatient – some people have a greater preference for smaller immediate rewards rather than larger delayed rewards, and vice versa. If you still aren’t convinced regarding the importance of this behavioural tendency – research shows that having such a preference for smaller sooner rewards has been linked to negative academic, social and health outcomes. For example, such impatient people perform poorly in school/university, are at higher risk for obesity and substance abuse disorders, and have worse social relationships.
We studied such impatience using a construct called delay discounting - the rate at which the subjective value of a reward decreases as the length of time (delay) before it is obtained increases. An important mechanism that impacts people’s discounting behaviour is the reward amount – previous research shows that people are more impatient for smaller rewards than larger ones. While previous research supports the important consequences of individual differences in discounting behaviour, there is limited conclusive research on the same.
We conducted a relatively large scale study using data from over 5k Facebook users via an application called myPersonality (Stillwell & Kosinski, 2011). In the past, myPersonality users have taken psychometric assessments to receive feedback on various aspects of themselves, while, in turn, they agreed to provide their anonymised results for psychological research.
We found that people who were more conscientious and/or open to experiences were more patient than their counterparts. Conscientiousness (self-controlled vs. easy-going) includes a deliberation facet. Individuals low on deliberation are hasty, careless, and impatient (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001); and thus, likely to be more impatient in decision-making. Openness to experience extends from artistic to conservative. It may be that the tendency to engage in discounting behaviour implies inadequate patience to explore new ideas or concepts comprehensively; and, hence, less open to experience (Berlin & Rolls, 2004). Considering that Berlin and Rolls (2004) found that openness to experience negatively correlated with self-reported impulsivity, we wonder whether openness causes individuals to be impulsive or vice versa? We also found that the effect of openness on discounting behaviour was even stronger when the delayed amount was larger. i.e. People highly open to experiences were even more likely to wait for future gains if these gains were large as compared to people low in openness to experience.
Figure 1 Delay discounting rates as a function of delayed reward amount and Openness to Experience (1 SD above/below the mean).
On the other hand, we found that people who were more extroverted and/or neurotic tended to be far more impatient than their counterparts. The extraversion domain (outgoing vs. reserved) includes an excitement-seeking facet – individuals high in excitement seeking are pleasure seeking, audacious, and adventurous. In turn, individuals high in adventurousness have a preference for novel and intense experiences and have had unusual experiences. Research shows that such people tend to be more impulsive; hence, not surprising that they tended to engage in steeper discounting behaviour. Neuroticism, however, is characterized by emotional instability and impulsiveness. Costa and McCrae (1992) theorized that low self-control is measured by the impulsiveness facet of neuroticism. Those high in neuroticism may discount the future more because they have problems delaying gratification due to poor self-control (Hettema, Neale, Myers, Prescott, & Kendler, 2006; Ostaszewski, 1996). In addition, this effect was magnified when the amounts were larger – probably because the reward was perceived as far more enticing.
Figure 2 Delay discounting rates as a function of delayed reward amount and Neuroticism (1 SD above/below the mean).
The findings highlight that discounting behaviour may be more complex than researchers often assume. Personality differences that help determine decision-making also vary depending on the magnitude of the reward – it is not constant. Further, the findings may help in the emergence of new intervention strategies aimed at reducing impulsive decisions among various target populations, including substance abusers, credit card defaulters etc. For instance, as impulsivity is an important characteristic of borderline personality disorder (BPD), rehabilitation can include positive feedback for patients who are able to make conscious and deliberate decisions (Berlin & Rolls, 2004).
Find out more for yourself at: Who can wait for the future? A Personality Perspective
Berlin, H. A., & Rolls, E. T. (2004). Time perception, impulsivity, emotionality, and personality in self-harming borderline personality disorder patients. Journal of Personality Disorders, 18(4), 358-378. doi: 10.1521/pedi.2004.18.4.358
Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) manual. Odessa, Florida: Psychological Assessment Resources
Hettema, J. M., Neale, M. C., Myers, J. M., Prescott, C. A., & Kendler, K. S. (2006). A population-based twin study of the relationship between neuroticism and internalizing disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(5), 857-864. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.163.5.857
Ostaszewski, P. (1996). The relation between temperament and rate of temporal discounting. European Journal of Personality, 10(3), 161-172. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1099-0984(199609)10:3<161::aid-per259>3.0.co;2-r
Stillwell, D. J., & Kosinski, M. (2011). myPersonality Research Wiki. from http://mypersonality.org/wiki
Whiteside, S. P., & Lynam, D. R. (2001). The Five Factor Model and impulsivity: using a structural model of personality to understand impulsivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 30(4), 669-689. doi: 10.1016/s0191-8869(00)00064-7