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Imagination Can Restrain Impulsiveness

New research describes a technique that dampens our desire for immediate gratification.
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As Washington watchers are well aware, bad decisions are often the product of impulsiveness. Whether it's our choice of what to eat for lunch or our nation's policy on climate change, we too often make choices that produce immediate gratification, but ultimately produce harm.

Psychological research suggests this is, to some degree, innate. Experiments have shown that small kids who can't resist reaching for a marshmallow have less successful adult lives, due to that inability to resist temptation in favor of pursing long-term goals.

But according to a new study, there may be a simple way to focus our minds on the bigger picture. It finds making a subtle mental shift—choosing not between two concrete options, but rather between two sequences of events—can stimulate your imagination and reveal the value of waiting.

"Willpower might enable people to override impatient impulses after they're formed," lead author Adrianna Jenkins of the University of California–Berkeley said in announcing the findings. "Imagining future consequences might affect the formation of the impulses themselves."

In the journal Psychological Science, Jenkins and co-author Ming Hsu describe three experiments. In one, 122 undergraduates were randomly assigned to choose between immediate and delayed gratification.

For half, this was framed in traditional time-tradeoff terms ("$100 tomorrow" vs. "$120 in 30 days"). The others were asked to choose between two sequences of events, such as "$100 tomorrow and $0 in 30 days," vs. "$0 tomorrow and $120 in 30 days."

That tempting piece of cake may not seem so irresistible if you can envision a frustrating morning when you can't fit into your clothes.

"Participants expressed stronger preferences for the later, greater option in the sequence frame," the researchers report.

The second experiment featured 203 participants recruited online. They performed the same task, and were additionally asked to "tell us everything that you were thinking as you consider this decision."

The researchers found those asked to choose between the two sequences were better able to imagine the benefits of waiting, and what the extra cash would mean to their lives. ("The extra $20 ... will be a nice surprise 30 days from now," one wrote.)

The final experiment essentially replicated the first, except the 29 participants made their choice while having their brains scanned. The results showed that, when choices were framed as A vs. B, brain areas associated with willpower lit up.

But when they were framed as a choice between two sequences of events, the task stimulated brain areas associated with imagination. They were apparently conjuring up images of the future, and were thus less inclined to grab for an immediate reward.

Given that willpower can be depleted when we're feeling overwhelmed, this is a welcome finding. That tempting piece of cake may not seem so irresistible if you can envision a frustrating morning when you can't fit into your clothes. Humans are storytellers; that ability may save us from one of our more self-destructive impulses.

Who knows? It could even dampen one's temptation to tweet.