Let Brain Science Guide Your Brain to be a Bit More Patient

New research shows how to put your brain to work so you can be more patient.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

Many situations require patience, but for COVID-19, being able to put off immediate pleasure can mean the difference between life and death. You’d like to run out to the mall, not for any particular reason, but just to get a chance to go to a store again. However, your local restrictions mean that you have to time your visit according to when you think the fewest people will be there. In the back of your mind, you also might wonder whether it's wise to go out and put yourself or others at risk of infection.

Perhaps you’ve given up in-person shopping in favor of having your needs met online. That doesn't mean your need for patience is over. Packages are taking longer to reach you due to the strain on distribution centers. You keep checking and re-checking the status of your delivery, only to be disappointed in the lack of progress shown by your precious package.

The patience the pandemic is forcing you to adopt applies to far more than simple retail pleasures, of course. You consider putting off the chance to be with family other, perhaps, than your children who are constantly underfoot. If your work can’t be done from home, your commute takes more time than ever if you have to rely on public transportation, when trains and busses are running less frequently. The same problems apply to seeing your friends. Do you risk dining out, even with social distancing, because you so sorely miss your buddies?

Everything, in other words, goes more slowly when the normal wheels of life slow to accommodate the new COVID-19 reality. Even as you feel personally frustrated by it all, though, other people you know seem to be taking the whole situation in stride. They’re in no rush to resume their normal activities and don’t feel as inconvenienced as you do by the many ways the pandemic has taken away your freedom to do what you please. What inner psychological mechanisms allow them to patiently bide their time?

A new study by Wesleyan University’s Andrea Patalano and colleagues (2020) suggests that the patient people in your life may have slightly different hardwiring to deal with delays than do you. The process of choosing between immediate and future benefits and costs, or “intertemporal decisions,” the Patalano et al. researchers maintain, may relate to patterns of electrical activity in the brain. In an intertemporal decision, you have to choose between a smaller award you could get right now and a larger award that would come only when you’re willing to wait.

The related process of temporal discounting occurs when that long-term, larger reward, diminishes in value the longer you have to wait for it. In COVID-19 terms, this means that your long-term reward of avoiding the disease by waiting for a vaccine or cure can loom smaller in your mind because it will take so long to happen. The short-term reward, though smaller (i.e. riskier for your health) therefore has infinitely more attraction

The brain region involved in temporal discounting is the anterior cingulate cortex, which supports your ability to make good decisions by controlling your impulses. When you are poised to make that choice between short-term and long-term rewards, this part of your brain should, if working well, allow you to avoid the trap of temporal discounting and make the decision that most benefits your health. If it’s slightly less efficient in this process, however, you’ll rush ahead and try to seek that immediate gratification.

The Wesleyan researchers used a brain imaging method known as event-related potential (ERP), which monitors electrical activity while you are processing information. While balancing short- vs. long-term rewards, electrical activity shows an ever so slight dip within a few milliseconds (less than .1 second). This means that you’re stopping, for that ever so brief period, to examine your choice. After this negative deflection, your brain’s electrical activity then rises up as you engage in the task itself.

That dip, or “error-related negativity (ERN),” reflects “a process of evaluating and signaling the need for cognitive control”… which prompts “changes in attentional focus and other strategic adjustments associated with performance” (p. 2). In previous research, the ERN was used as a measure of people’s ability to adjust their responses after making errors in attention tasks (such as spotting the “S” in the middle of a string of “H’s’). However, prior to the Patalano et al. study, it wasn't used in a temporal discounting task where participants are faced with a risky vs. conservative choice.

The authors proposed, based on prior studies, that people who make the risky choice show less of an ERN than those who take the long-term option with a higher payoff. To test this hypothesis, Patalano et al. presented their college student sample (34 men and 50 women) with a series of intertemporal decisions set up with the choice to pick, for example, 10 dollars today or 26 dollars in 3 weeks. If you’re an impatient person, you’ll go immediately for the 10 dollars today. At this point, stop and ask yourself this very question. Would you grab the cash and go or hold off to score the bigger gain? You might not have electrodes attached to your head, so your ERN can’t be measured, but you’ll know subjectively which has more value to you.

Across trials of the study, the value of the immediate reward remained the same ($10 today) while that of the long-term reward varied in amount and length of time. This variation was the key to separating the patient from the impatient in the sample. If the long-term rewards are close enough in value to the $10 and far enough away, even those generally willing to wait might go for immediate reward option.

Consider as an example what might happen to you if you’re ordering on a website that offers you a discount for “subscribe and save.” The subscription option might take weeks to arrive but if it’s 10 or 15% cheaper, you’ll consider it. If it’s the exact same price or very close to the same price, you’ll opt for “buy now.” Even an impatient person might go for that long-term option if it’s enough of a price difference.

Returning now to the study’s findings, the Wesleyan researchers found that the patient people (those willing to go for the long-term reward in most cases) showed no differences in ERPs no matter which choice they eventually made. They were willing to wait patiently unless for some reason there was no benefit to waiting. The high temporal discounters (the impatient), would choose the immediate option without giving it much thought until they were stopped in their tracks by a long-term offer that was too good to refuse. At that point, correspondingly, their hesitancy was reflected in that micro-millisecond dip in brain activity.

Turning now to the choices you make in this pandemic may, this study suggests, be traceable to the activity of the part of your cortex that regulates your levels of patience. However, even immediate reward-seeking individuals can pause and reflect on their choices under the right circumstances. As the authors note, “the ERN has been thought to function as an early warning system that alerts the brain to prepare for potentially negative consequences associated with a risky action” (p. 4). Making those consequences seem as negative and as short-term as possible might be the route to helping the impatient cope with the exigencies of daily life required by the pandemic.

To sum up, the rewards of patience may never be quite as apparent as they are when your very life may hang in the balance. Now that you know the brain’s role in the process, consider adapting your own choice style to ensure the most rewarding of your own long-term consequences.

References

Patalano, A. L., Lolli, S. L., & Sanislow, C. A. (2020). Brief report on the relationship between temporal discount rate and error related negativity for immediate versus future choice options. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 151, 1–6. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2020.02.006