Battling Delayed vs. Instant Gratification
Thursday, October 14, 2004
By Jennifer Warner, WebMD Medical News
Your Brain May Be at War Over Instant Gratification and Long-Term Goals
Torn between the instant gratification of eating the chocolate in front of you and looking good at your beach vacation next month? A new study shows that if it feels like opposing parts of your brain are battling each other, they probably are.
Researchers found two different areas of the brain appear to be involved in balancing short-term versus long-term rewards. One part deals with instant gratification and the other holds out for a bigger payoff in the long run.
"We have different neural systems that evolved to solve different types of problems, and our behavior is dictated by the competition or cooperation between them," says researcher Jonathan Cohen of Princeton' University's Center for the Study of Brain Mind and Behavior, in a news release.
Balancing Instant Gratification vs. Long-term Rewards
In the study, published in the Oct. 15 issue of Science, researchers compared the brain activity of 14 college students who were asked to consider delayed reward problems while undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan.
The students were offered choices between gift certificates ranging from $5 to $40 in value, but larger amounts could only be obtained by waiting from two to six weeks.
The imaging showed that decisions involving the potential for instant gratification activated parts of the brain closely associated with regulating emotion.
But when students chose the delayed reward option, researchers found the regions of the brain involved in logic and reasoning were more highly activated than the emotional regions, although both regions were involved in making the decision.
"Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions," says researcher David Laibson of Princeton University, in the release. "Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert, and smoke a cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog, and quit smoking.
"To understand why we feel internally conflicted, it will help to know how myopic and forward-looking brain systems value rewards and how these systems talk to one another," says Laibson.
Researchers say the results may also help explain instant gratification behavior, such as drug addiction.
SOURCES: McClure, S. Science, Oct. 15, 2004; vol 306: pp 503-507. News release, Princeton University.