Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Ability to delay gratification may be linked to social trust

Public release date: 4-Sep-2013
Contact: Yuko Munakata
University of Colorado at Boulder
Ability to delay gratification may be linked to social trust, new CU-Boulder study finds

A person's ability to delay gratification—forgoing a smaller reward now for a larger reward in the future—may depend on how trustworthy the person perceives the reward-giver to be, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

A body of research that stretches back more than a half-century has shown that the ability to delay gratification is linked to a number of better life outcomes. On average, people who were able to delay gratification as children go on to have higher SAT scores, for example. They also tend to be more socially conscious as adolescents, less obese as adults, and less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

But despite the long history of studying delayed gratification, little research has focused on the role of social trust in a person's ability to wait for a larger payoff in the future.

"Most of the time, when people talk about delaying gratification, they talk about basic processes of evaluation and self-control," said Laura Michaelson, a CU-Boulder doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and co-lead author of the new study appearing in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology.

In general, people who choose not to delay gratification have often been characterized as irrational and as having poor impulse control. But if the role of social trust is considered, it introduces the possibility that the person who is choosing not to delay gratification may be acting rationally after all, the researchers said.

"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.


"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 findings could have implications for determining the best intervention strategies to use with children who find it difficult to delay gratification. Creating environments in which children can develop social trust, for example, could be more effective than having those children work solely on self-control, Michaelson said.


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