Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Delay discounting and motivation
What role does delay discounting play in motivation?
Overview[edit | edit source]
Motivation[edit | edit source]
We’ve all been in a situation where we feel like we need more motivation – be it for a work assignment, chores or a personal endeavour. We’ve all experienced a lack of motivation and consequently wondered how we can bring some back into our lives. The answer to this question lies in understanding the cause of human motivation. In its early understanding, theorists attempted to explain all facets of motivation with all-encompassing theories. For example, William James’ Instinct Theory (Harlow, 1969) which suggested that survival instinct was the root of motivation, or Freud’s Drive Theory (Mills, 2004) which postulated that drive arose as a psychological warning system. However, these theories seemed to miss the intricacies of human motivation and thus over time were replaced by “mini-theories” which sought to explain individual facets of motivation. While mini-theories have their place, they’re very diverse and as such difficult to consistently refer to. So, for the purposes of this chapter, we’ll focus on what deters motivation rather than what causes it – and try and work through these deterrances.
Delay Discounting[edit | edit source]
Delay discounting is possibly the most relatable psychological concept when it comes to hindrances to motivation. It is defined as the depreciation of the value of a reward relative to the time that it takes to be released (Odum, 2011). A short summary of the role that it plays in motivation is this: When we are presented with the option of two rewards, with one immediate and one that we’ll have to wait for, most of us will be motivated to go for the one that we can get immediately. So, as the delay for a reward increases, so does the discounting of the value of the reward. The interesting thing is, most of us will choose the immediate reward even if the later reward has objectively more value. Psychologists refer to these two reward types as smaller-sooner and larger-later (Madden et al., 2003). Does this ring any bells? Maybe something related to children and marshmallows? Or even more recently a television commercial by Haribo add link, the popular lolly manufacturer? If so, you’re on the right track.
Walter Mischel[edit | edit source]
A psychologist at Stanford University by the name of Walter Mischel tested a delay-gratification hypothesis on children (Mischel, Ebbesen and Raskoff Zeiss, 1970). He presented 32 preschool children separately with a snack that they liked, and promised them a snack that they liked better if they waited for him to come back into the room. If they called him back into the room earlier, they could take the less preferred snack but would not be able to have the more preferred snack. Mischel tested this hypothesis in four conditions, one where the child could see the less preferred reward but not the delayed reward, one where the child could see both rewards, one where the child could see neither reward and one where the child could see just the delayed reward. To the experimenters’ surprise, the results showed that children waited the longest when neither reward was shown, and waited shortest when both were shown.
So, what does this mean? Aside from the suggestion that children have the ability to delay gratification – albeit in the right conditions, this study is important as it launched a series of replications and follow-up longitudinal studies, all with interesting information to offer. The longitudinal studies are most interesting, and here’s why: a replication study of pre-schoolers using marshmallows in 1972 found similar results – and when the pre-schoolers were tested again as adolescents, they found that the children who were able to wait longest had significantly higher SAT scores and were better at coping socially and emotionally (Mischel, Shoda & Peake, 1988). In 2000, the now adults who were better at waiting had higher educational achievement, higher sense of self-worth and better ability to cope with stress (Adyuk et al., 2000)! I know, right? My mind was blown too! But parents – stress not. Your impatient child is NOT doomed. Luckily for us, human psychology and behaviour is rarely dictated by linear tests such as the marshmallow test. What these experiments do show us, however, is that understanding delay discounting could prove to be an asset in overcoming motivational hurdles in many facets of life.
Goals[edit | edit source]
Let’s talk about goals for a minute. Did you know that in general, people with goals outperform people without goals? (Reeve, 2018). Additionally, the same person performs better when they have a goal than when they don’t. This is directly linked to motivation – let me explain with an example. Picture yourself stuck in a line going into the supermarket. You didn’t really want to get groceries after a long day of work and even now that you’re in line you’re considering leaving and coming back later. Problem is, you need these groceries. What do you do? Do you listen to the voice in your head or do you listen to the voice of reason? Answering this question is harder than it seems, because if it was easy the question wouldn’t be there in the first place, but the correct answer is – you set a goal. You tell yourself that you’re going to direct your energies towards making it to the end of the line because you want to be the kind of proactive person that can push through moments like this rather than the kind of person that lazily gives in. This “gap” between the person you are (lazy) and the person you want to be (proactive) is the reason why you set goals, and it is a desire to close this “gap” that generates motivation (Locke & Latham, 1990). The supermarket example is a small one, but it’s easy to extrapolate that into career, health and personal goals. This is why it is important to discuss goals when it comes to improving one’s motivational life, and that is what this chapter will focus on: how to attain your goals without being hindered by smaller-sooner temptations. So, we all want to achieve our goals.
The problem is, goals are relatively easy to set but rather difficult to pursue. If you’ve ever tried pursuing a sizeable goal, you’ll know how difficult it can be to stay motivated, and this is where delay discounting comes into the picture. You might’ve hit a point while pursuing a goal where you feel like there’s a hill that’s too steep to climb, or maybe your efforts aren’t drawing results, or maybe you’re just exhausted and have lost faith in the goal. In situations like this, the immediate reward would be to give up and move on. Why not? The goal is so far away, it’d just feel better to give in right now. The crux of the problem here is that giving up on the goal has an immediate rewarding effect – the feel, and is thus more appealing than the delayed reward of achieving the goal. The question is – how do we convince ourselves to continue to be motivated towards the greater goal when we’re presented with an immediate reward?
Back to Mischel[edit | edit source]
Well, letsstart with Mischel himself. Mischel’s work undoubtedly created a major research – and to some extent global – impact when it was first introduced and when it was consequently replicated, however it isn’t without its shortcomings. His marshmallow experiment famously used pre-schoolers from the Bing Nursery School of Stanford University, so it wasn’t exactly a representative sample. Furthermore, in his own assessments of his early work (Mischel et al., 2011), he focuses heavily on how tendency to delay (or not delay) in childhood influences success in adulthood and beyond, almost neglecting to consider the plethora of complex environmental, social and emotional factors; among others; that also play a part in human decision-making. Despite this, his focus on improving childhood delay has led to research into interesting strategies which we can implement as adults.
Back in Time[edit | edit source]
To understand a simple and effectiveone, lets go back in time to 1972 and join Walter Mischel in his Stanford experimental room. There’s a table in the centre, a chair in front of the table and a cardboard box containing attractive battery-operated toys. We move to the viewing room and watch as Mischel brings in the children one by one and leaves, going back when the child signals or when the time limit of 15 minutes is up. For some of the children he moves the toys out of the room. He tests five groups of children, and we notice some interesting differences. We notice that the children who have the toys in the room with them seem distracted and are able to wait longer than the children who don’t. Okay, back to reality now. In the report, Mischell describes this distraction as “transforming the difficult into the easy, the aversive into the pleasant and the boring into the interesting” (Mischel, 1972). The transformation that he talks about doesn’t just refer to a physical distraction – he’s indicating that any form of cognitive relocation from the reward to something else is effective in increasing delay. For us, a practical application of this could be something as simple as removing the cake from eyesight when we’re trying to lose weight, or chewing gum rather than putting the cigarette in our mouth when we’re tempted to smoke again. So next time you’re faced with a temptation en route to your goal, see if you can find a way to either move the object from your cognitive mindscape or distract yourself with something safer.
Theories[edit | edit source]
Self-Regulation[edit | edit source]
Okay great, so I can move a cake out of eyesight or turn off my notifications when I’ve got an assignment to do but what about the non-physical? How do I learn to regulate my behaviour so that I can deal with temptations that aren’t physical objects? I’m glad you asked, Reader! Letsdive into a bit of psychological theory for this one. Pintrich and Zimmerman (as cited in Reeve, 2018) describe self-regulation as “the metacognitive planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating of one’s goal striving efforts.” What this means is that self-regulation is more of a process than a “quick fix” such as the transformation exercise discussed in the previous paragraph. Meanwhile, a review of literature on self-regulation failure found that most models of self-regulation have adopted the dual-process view – that is, two conflicting internal processes are competing for control of your behaviour (De Witt Huberts et al., 2013). These processes differ model-by-model, but can be generalised into reflective versus impulsive processes.
Self-Control[edit | edit source]
However, overcoming the impulsive process is in itself a process, and experts say that self-regulation is a learned skill (Reeve, 2018), so we’ll focus on a central skill in self-regulation as opposed to the processes. This skill is self-control. Self-control is the capacity to suppress or even override an impulsive desire in favour of a goal (Bauer & Baumeister as cited in Reeve, 2018). However, it is more than a skill – it’s an energy reserve. The general consensus is that the reserve needs to be replenished, and when it is depleted, we’re more likely to give in to impulses, and in general have less control over ourselves. A biological correlation was found by Muraven and colleagues (Muraven, Shmueli, & Burkley, 2006), where they found that glucose depletes rapidly over the course of multiple self-control tasks. So, next time you’re about to embark on a self-control mission, fill up on glucose and you should be okay. Of course, I say this in jest; self-control isn’t all about dessert – it also requires practice (Baumeister et al., as cited in Reeve, 2018). Considering that self-control is a personality variable with a great record of predicting who has a successful life, it seems obvious that one would want to practice self-control when presented with an immediate reward.
Quiz[edit | edit source]
Delay discounting specific strategies[edit | edit source]
Episodic Future Thinking[edit | edit source]
Letstalk about some research done specifically to target delay discounting. Episodic future thinking (EFT) is an intervention which involves mental simulation of future events (Stein et al., 2017). A study by Jeffrey Stein of Virginia, USA and colleagues found that in a hypothetical purchase task involving a sample of heavy smokers (10 or more cigarettes per day), delay discounting and intensity of demand for cigarettes was reduced by EFT (Stein et al., 2017). EFT in practice involves an individual imagining and describing a vivid mental simulation of future events that are positive, vivid and specific. While this particular study had some shortcomings in that it was entirely web-based and hypothetical – allowing room for false information, there is ample empirical evidence for the effectiveness of EFT . Although, it should be noted that hypothetical versus real rewards don’t have a significant effect on results (see Madden et al., 2003; Hinvest & Anderson, 2010). In another study, participants were asked to imagine themselves lying on a deserted beach with white sands in a beautiful tropical bay, then asked to give a description of everything that each of the senses was experiencing (Gollner et al., 2018). The participants who had a more distinctive imagination showed significantly higher delay of gratification i.e. significantly lower delay discounMting . This was the first study that assessed actual behavior in a delay discounting analysis as opposed to the previous ones which used self-report measures, primarily questionnaires. This grants more value to the study. Additionally, the study found these results consistent across age groups, meaning whatever your age is, Reader, EFT could prove to be an effective tool for countering delay discounting for you!
Framing[edit | edit source]
Another effective strategy that has been explored by delay discounting researchers is framing. Framing essentially manipulates the way the two choices are viewed, and framing manipulations have prominently been studied in two categories (Rung & Madden, 2018). Framing of time involves describing the delayed reward as an outcome to be delivered on a specific date; Framing of outcomes pertains to changing the way that the two choices themselves are presented (Rung & Madden, 2018).
Framing of time can be especially useful in situations where there is a deadline to meet. Daniel Read and his colleagues examined this phenomenon in a controlled experiment (Read et al., 2005). They conducted trials with both hypothetical and real rewards, asking participants to choose which of two rewards they would prefer, both marked either with exact dates such as 250 pounds on October 26, 2003 or 450 pounds on June 25, 2004 or with month or week delays (e.g. 250 pounds in 4 months or 450 pounds in 13 months). The results indicated that allocating the delayed reward a specific date resulted in up to twice as many participants choosing the delayed reward. Despite the small issue of possible participant bias, as most participants were economics students and the reward was monetary, the results are striking. Therefore, this technique can be used in one’s personal goal striving – and it can already be seen to work when we’re forced to work to a deadline. Somehow, the motivation just does not go away!
Framing of outcomes can be done in many ways, however the most popular seems to be that of explicit zero manipulation. In explicit zero manipulation, as Eran Magen and colleagues did in their study, the participant is offered the two outcomes with the hidden value of zero being included in the phrasing (Magen, Dweck & Gross, 2008). For example, a participant is told: “You can have $5 today and $0 in 26 days OR “$0 today and $6.20 in 26 days”. In this way, the two outcomes are separated and showed in contrast with the alternative of zero. In Magen’s experiment, the participants were offered monetary rewards, with immediate rewards ranging from $2 to $8, and delayed rewards ranging from $5.40 to $8.70, with delays ranging from 7 to 140 days. There were significantly lower levels of impulsiveness in the explicit-zero condition as opposed to the control condition, meaning that people who were asked with the particular phrasing as indicated above were far better at choosing the larger reward, than people who weren’t asked with the zero, even though the reward was later. Although the male to female ratio in this study was 1:7, indicating a possible gender skew, outside of the gender variable, the results were significant. A practical application of the explicit-zero approach in your life could be, for example, spend your savings on a new television today versus save more and go on a vacation to your favourite vacation spot. You could phrase this to yourself in the following way: “I could get a new television today and go on no (zero) vacations in a month OR I could go on a vacation in a month and have no (zero) new televisions today.”
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
This chapter provided an understanding of the role of delay discounting in human motivation, primarily the way we can practically counter it in our motivational lives. Delay Discounting is arguably the most relatable motivational hurdle that human beings come across. We learned about grand theories versus mini-theories of motivation, and how interest in delay discounting rose after the experiments by Mischel and colleagues over 40 years ago and longitudinal follow up studies since. After understanding the significance of delay discounting, we moved on to understanding the importance of goal-setting and pursuing. This led us back to Mischel’s recommendations for reducing delay discounting based on his observations of children. This relatively simple cognitive relocation technique was followed by more complex motivational-theory-driven solutions to lapses in motivation, with a focus on self-regulation. The process of self-regulation is much more practically understood through understanding how to improve one’s self-control, which in recent years has been seen as a pool of energy rather than a skill. While improving self control is one way to combat the effects of delay discounting, other effective methods exist in the form of delay-discounting-specific strategies. This research outlined two prominent approaches: episodic future thinking and framing, and we concluded on a practical application of the explicit-zero framing outcome manipulation. Thus, information which was garnered through an interest in the delay of gratification in children has today led to a set of strategies based on psychological theory which can be practically applied to any reader’s own motivational life.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Delayed Reinforcement and Motivation (Book chapter, 2017)
- Delay of Gratification and Motivation (Book chapter, 2013)
- Drive Theory (Wikipedia)
- Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (Wikipedia)
- Time Preference (Wikipedia)
- Walter Mischel (Wikiversity)
References[edit | edit source]
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Göllner LM, Ballhausen N, Kliegel M and Forstmeier S (2018) Delay of Gratification, Delay Discounting and their Associations with Age, Episodic Future Thinking, and Future Time Perspective. Front. Psychol. 8:2304. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02304
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