Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

If You Want to Focus on the Long Term, Be Grateful

Gratitude makes you value the future more strongly.

A common observation about human behavior is that people are biased toward what is best in the short-term.  That does not meant that people always pursue short-term pleasures over long-term gains.  It just means that the value of the long-term option has to be much larger than what people will get right now in order for them to choose to delay the benefit.

Economists call this idea temporal discounting.  To use a money example, imagine that I was willing to give you $100 next month, or a smaller amount of money right now.  If I offered you $10 right now, you would probably wait a month to get the $100.  If I offered you $90 right now, you would probably take that rather than waiting.  But, where is your dividing line?  What is the smallest amount of money that you would take to wait a month to get $100?

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The smaller the amount of money you would take now, the less you value future experience compared to present experience.  If you would be willing to take $45 now as opposed to $100 in a month, then you are saying that $100 in a month is only worth $45 in today’s dollars.

In many situations, we want people to value the future more than they do now, so that they are willing to engage in activities that create future value.  A paper in the June, 2014 issue of Psychological Science by David DeSteno, Ye Li, Leah Dickens, and Jenifer Lerner suggests that when people experience gratitude, they give more value to future events compared to present ones.

In this study, participants ultimately evaluated lots of situations like the prospect of getting $20 now or $50 in a week.  These problems were given in order for the researchers to make an estimate of how much people were valuing future events compared to present events.  Participants were told that some of them would actually get an amount of money based on one of their choices, so they should choose carefully.

The participants were divided into three groups.  A control group was just asked to recall the events of a typical day.  A second group was asked to recall situations that made them happy.  A third group recalled situations that made them feel grateful.   The idea behind the last two groups was to help distinguish between gratitude and more general positive feeling.

The group that thought about gratitude valued the future more than those who thought about either happy events or a normal day.  This finding suggests that there is something about gratitude (above and beyond being positive) that leads people to be more focused on the long-term rather than the short-term. 

It is not completely clear why gratitude should have this effect.  One possibility is that gratitude makes people feel more connected to those around them.  Social connection influences people’s sense that they are part of something larger and more permanent than themselves.  That may make it feel less difficult to wait for a future reward.

Another possibility is that engaging in acts of kindness (which creates gratitude) often requires some degree of altruism on the part of the performer.  So, thinking about these altruistic acts may make people feel like they can give up something in the present in order to get a future reward.

Clearly, though, more work needs to be done to understand why gratitude has the influence on the way people value the future.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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