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 How good are you at anticipating a reward from a future event?

Have you ever thought of how you would feel about achieving a life long goal such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or perhaps winning the Lottery?
It seems that some of us are far better at imagining future rewards than others and it comes down to how impulsive we are by nature.

Impulsive folks find it harder to look forward to a future reward, partly because they would really have it now and also because the way their brain works.
Feeling good about a future reward even though it may be a little way off is the differentiating feature. When we anticipate something nice such as a cup of coffee when we have finished our task, an area called the aPFC (anterior prefrontal cortex) lights up in our brain. This is the area of the brain we use when thinking about the future.  If we associate good things and can utilise this area for future planning we can experience the pleasure of the anticipated reward right now. If you are patient, the level of activity in this area gradually diminishes from the first thought of starting to wait for the reward, whereas impulsive people did not show activity in this area in the first place.In other words they did not experience that anticipatory good feeling for waiting.

Another brain area involved is called the ventral striatum. If you are impulsive, activity here in the VS increases rapidly the closer you get to the expected reward whereas in a more patient person the level of activity stayed more constant.

It’s like the difference we sometimes see in young children in their ability to show restraint (or not) in their excitement about an expected happy event such as going to a favourite T.V. character show. They may all be really looking forward to going, but while some kids will demonstrate restraint in their anticipated reward  others will be beside themselves with excitement, literally jumping out of their skin. There is no difference in the anticipation of the event, just a difference in how the excitement is perceived and expressed in different parts of the brain.

In the study the researchers used a reward of a squirt of juice that the participants received directly into their mouth. They could choose to receive their reward immediately, or delay it by up to one minute. This was a real reward which differentiated it from previous studies that had used hypothetical amounts of money.

So what did this study tell us about ourselves?
Well I guess it confirms what we have previously seen, but with a greater understanding of why.
Impulsive people don’t get very excited about a rewarding future event until very close to the event when their impulsivity ramps up their ventral striatum area.
Patient people by contrast can enjoy the future prospect of reward more calmly and anticipate the future reward in a more reserved manner.

With goal setting we can use this knowledge to help motivate our performance to achieving our desired outcome. If we are patient, our motivation will come from reminders perhaps visualising the future reward. If we are impulsive we don’t create that future picture so we learn to keep on track by checking in to activate the goal we desire and the associated decisions that go with the progress so far.
This also goes a long the way to explain how impulsivity and procrastination are interlinked. The more impulsive we are the more we are likely to procrastinate because we find it harder to imagine the future benefits of the long-term reward.

Koji Jimura1,2,3, Maria S. Chushak3, and Todd S. Braver3,4 Impulsivity and Self-Control during Intertemporal Decision Making Linked to the Neural Dynamics of Reward Value Representation The Journal of Neuroscience, 2 January 2013, 33(1): 344-357; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0919-12.2013

Photo Credit:
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/43335486@N00/6921278443/”>Ben Heine</a>
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Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

One Comment

  • Serge Le Goueff says:

    Now this begs to be explored one step beyond.

    My aPFC (in my case anticipation of Present From Cerebrum, also known as Whoohoo!) has been showcasing fireworks for the best of the last three decades. However, if I am completely honest, I would be hard pressed to remember fostering this behaviour in my teens. The setting of truly rewarding substantial goals only occurred slowly from age 20, and steadily increased over an entire decade, when finally it became a habit. The goals were easy to visualize as they were meaningful to me. The acquisition of my first "Selmer" saxophone; aspiring at new career and working towards it with a set date at which to have suitably educated myself to realistically enjoy gainful employment in my new chosen profession (I made it a trend to change jobs every three years until I found jobs that captivated me beyond the 3 year period, but I always kept an open mind and never declared having stopped searching for another exciting venture. Will I ever?); gaining a university degree which in turn would allow me to feel adequately equipped to tackle yet a new profession, etc…These were goals worth waiting for and worth working towards, so it was a natural consequence that I would show patience and determination in awaiting the promised rewards. This brings me to the following questions: Do the goals need to be of substance and meaningful for an individual to be able to display this virtuous patience we all aspire to?Can an individual be patient at any age so long as the anticipated reward is proportional to the effort and delayed gratification self imposed by the individual?Is the individual likely to be more patient if the delayed reward is self ‘inflicted’ rather than imposed?Can patience be taught with efficacy and from what age? (I have a suspicion I know the answer to this one!)If patience can be developed, how can we explain the current trend of the present young generation that seems to be: "I want it now and with the smallest of effort possible"?Perhaps, and I insist it is only my humble opinion, perhaps having given so much ease to do tasks that used to be somewhat more difficult in a not so distant past, has backfired on us. No one wants to work ‘hard’ anymore. Everyone seem to want it all at the smallest expense. Is it not unrealistic and unreasonable an attitude?I quietly believe that perhaps more is less. More ease, more access to infinite amounts of information has somewhat diminished the great thinking powers of many and ergo their ability to be patient. More is less. So, may we get less, so as to perhaps regain more of our cerebral abilities. May we achieve a balance between effort and reward. After all, nothing is worth much if one didn’t have to lift his little finger to get it. I look at my young children with hope. The spark shining in their young eyes as they marvel at the Lego space ship they have put together without my help, tells me: there is hope. This is the spark that needs to be nurtured. May we give love and support to our children’s endeavours. May we refrain to buying their happiness by making it all too easy for them. It is not easy to be patient. Nope. There should be a university degree in Patience. Parents will agree that to raise a child successfully requires patience beyond belief. It is worth it for the reward is to hopefully be beyond belief too!

    Oh Jenny. What are you doing to me? Your amazing insights and the grace with which you are sharing them with the rest of us is making me think deeply and question this and that. In all honesty: I love it.

    Keep on sharing. Thank you


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