Would you describe yourself as impatient? Jumpy? Unable to wait more than three minutes for something to happen, and liable to get irritated with anything that delays or seems unnecessarily slow? There's new research out of the University of California Berkeley that may be able to help you increase your patience quotient, shift the way in which your brain contemplates patience-straining situations, and make you slightly more bearable to family and friends. And the key, apparently, is just an active imagination.
In psychological terms, patience is defined as "the propensity to wait calmly in the face of frustration, adversity, or suffering," according to the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Positive Psychological Interventions. Waiting it out is understandably difficult for pretty much everybody, though some of us are less capable of it than others. Which is unfortunate, because it's necessary to have a bit of patience in order to lead a happy life, according to research — it helps you reach goals and feel satisfied when you get them. Just saying "patience is a virtue" to yourself over and over again, though, may not cut it — luckily, the new research, which will be out in Psychological Science shortly, gives people with a patience deficiency the ability to hack their behavior. Use it the next time your favorite program is taking forever to buffer.
Imagining The Future Makes Us More Patient
We often regard being patient as a kind of exercise of willpower; but it turns out that strength of will is only a part of the equation. Being patient, under the framework of this new research, doesn't only involve making the choice to stay calm and willing for a future reward instead of throwing a tantrum or giving up. It's also about how we envisage the consequences of what we're enduring and how the choices will work out for us. Sticking around in a long line for tickets to a hit show, according to this new research, requires not only the self-control to deny ourselves other things we could be doing (sitting down, getting a donut), but also the ability to imagine the positive consequences of waiting now for a reward later.
We know a little about how self-control works in the brain (though there's an ongoing debate about whether self-control is a finite resource, or whether we just think it is), but imagination and its impact on choices is a bit trickier. The structure of the University of California research was based around bringing our imaginations to the fore — and researchers did it by using a clever trick of language.
It turns out that if you suggest things to people in a sequence (first A, then B), they're more likely to picture the final result and stick to it than if you just suggest it as single choices (either A or B). The researchers found that if you ask people "Do you want $100 tomorrow and no money in 30 days, or no money tomorrow and $120 in 30 days?", they're more likely to go for the $120 than if you just ask them "Do you want $100 tomorrow or $120 in 30 days?"
The difference between those is, of course, just the way in which they're "framed." But people took different approaches to them — and were more easily able to imagine themselves having the $120 if they were given a bit of a sequence or a narrative. The researchers backed this up by looking at fMRIs of participants' brains while they made the decision, and found that "sequence" decisions tended to show more activation of imagination-related brain regions, whereas plain ones activated the regions associated with brain power.
Why on earth does this happen? Well, humans love a narrative. Research indicates that stories motivate us, encourage us to invest things with meaning, make us more cooperative, and other positive psychological effects. It seems, in this case, that the "sequence" of getting no money now and $120 later caused us to imagine the future, and ourselves in it, getting $120 — and all the things we could do with that extra $20, if only we waited. That imagination had more power than just willpower on its own.
Yes, You Can Try This At Home
A lot of neurological research is pretty difficult to replicate by the average person at home, but this one isn't. It's probably applicable to a whole bunch of situations: do you want to have a drink now and a hangover tomorrow, or no drink and no hangover? Do you want to wait in this insane queue and get the new Mass Effect, or go join your mates and not have it? The two things to take away from the experiment are the usefulness of "sequence" framing, and the importance of imagining consequences to keeping yourself patient.
This isn't the first time imagination has been shown to have an impact on our choices; in 2014, Science published studies indicating that if we imagine eating food over and over again, we're more likely to eat less of it in real life.
But in this case, imagination has been proven to be valuable in terms of the future. Clearly visualizing future goals that will only occur with current patience, and imagining them as possible, is not just some weird hippie way of managing your expectations — it seems to genuinely help you wait your turn without losing your mind. Whether or not this approach will actually work with stuff that requires not just present patience but present pain — like withstanding a painful medical treatment, for instance, or exercising in service of a future goal, like competing in a 10K — isn't yet clear. Willpower may, in those instances, take the lead instead of imagination.
However, if you're by nature an impatient person and can't stand to be told to wait, it seems that framing the consequences of waiting and visualizing them may be a damn good way to get yourself to calm down and sit patiently on your hands for a bit.