Gratitude: An Antidote for Temporal Discounting?

GRATITUDE AND TEMPORAL DISCOUNTING

Everybody is impatient to some degree. When it comes to money, we want money now. We want to spend money now. This economic impatience is called temporal discounting. In short, temporal discounting means that we value $50 today over $50 tomorrow and it’s one of the main reasons most people don’t have enough money to retire. The ability to overcome temporal discounting would be considered an economic super power! You would be the world’s greatest saver! Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to overcome temporal discounting entirely, but there are ways to lessen its impacts.

Next time you’re about to make a temporal financial decision (ie: how much should you put into savings?), what if you thought about a time that made you happy? What about a time that made you feel grateful? Do you think those memories would impact your choices? A 2014 study published in Psychological Science tried this on 75 different people. They were broken into three groups: one that thought about a happy time, one that thought about a time of gratitude, and then there was just the neutral group that did nothing out of the ordinary. They then asked each group to choose an amount of money to receive now versus a larger amount of money to receive later (ie: would they choose $11 now or $25 in a week, etc.). The group tested a variety of money amounts ($11-85) as well as length of time before the delayed payment (1 week-6 months).

So how did the groups do? It turns out that thinking about a happy time only improved temporal discounting rates slightly over the neutral group (not a statistically significant difference). The participants that thought of a time that made them feel grateful, however, had significantly more economic patience. The study explains: “In monetary terms, the mean participant in the grateful condition required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in 3 months, whereas the mean participant in the neutral or happy condition required only $55 immediately.”

Let’s take a look at the difference here. After all, it was only an $8 difference. But the actual measurement they calculated was called the annual discount factor. This term means the amount you discount a value of money between now and one year from now. An annual discount factor of 0.5 would mean you would accept half of the money today over double the money next year, or $50 today over $100 next year. If you tack another year on, you would discount it again, so the annual discount factor of 0.5 would mean you would only accept $25 for $100 in 2 years. An annual discount factor of 0 would mean you won’t accept any money next year. You will only accept money today. On the other end of the scale, an annual discount factor of 1 means you wouldn’t even consider taking a lesser amount of money no matter how long the wait or what the amount (again, if you’re capable of this, you have an economic super power!). In this study, the gratitude group hit a discount factor of 0.3 while the neutral group had a discount factor of just 0.17. That means experiencing gratitude almost doubled the amount people were willing to accept a year from now. Essentially, gratitude doubled the savings rate!

gratitude temporal discounting

The study also found that increasing the intensity of the gratitude also increased economic patience. Being more grateful for what you have now equates to making better economic choices for your future self.

SADNESS AND TEMPORAL DISCOUNTING

Another study published in Psychological Science in 2012 performed a very similar experiment for disgust and sadness (Inside Out and temporal discounting! – am I in heaven?). This time, people were shown 3-minute video clips before making temporal money choices. The people in the sadness group were shown the death of a boy’s mentor. The disgust group were shown a clip about an “unsanitary toilet” (yuck!), and the neutral group were shown a clip about the Great Barrier Reef. The participants were then asked to make choices between taking an amount of money right then or a larger amount of money later. The group tested the same variety of money amounts ($11-85) as well as length of time before the delayed payment (1 week-6 months) as the gratitude study.

The neutral group chose right around the same as the neutral group in the other study: $56 today instead of $85 in 3 months. Disgust ended up being about the same as the neutral group (an “unsanitary toilet” doesn’t make you want to take your money and run?). Those in the sadness group chose only $37 immediately over $85 later. It turns out, when we’re faced with the possibility of death, even in a 3-minute film clip, we want to go and live. YOLO. Carpe Diem and all that. Because life is fleeting.

Next time you need to make a temporal choice that involves money (increase the vacation budget next month or increase the 401k contributions?), think about a time that makes you especially grateful. You have the potential to nearly double your savings rate. Don’t consider death as imminent and don’t be sad. Be grateful. (You could also think about “unsanitary toilets,” but it won’t make a difference in your monetary outcome, so I wouldn’t recommend dwelling on them.)

Thanks to reader, David, for sending me the study. If you come across a study you find interesting or want me to discuss or have any questions you would like me to research out, send them my way! I love reader input and feedback!

gratitude temporal discounting

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17 Comments

  1. Tawcan

    Cool study. Practicing gratitude is something I’m doing on a daily basis and keep remind myself.

  2. I can attest to the sadness part. As a depressive, I have very different reactions on bad days versus good. I’m far more likely to make impulse purchases if I’m sad. I think it’s that you have a hard time believing you’ll feel okay in the future, so you’re more likely to take advantage of whatever you think will make you happy — whether that’s $35 or a big ole chocolate bar.

  3. Cool study. I wonder what the psychological mechanism behind this was. I suppose it’s that when you’re grateful for what you have right now, you don’t feel like you necessarily need *any* money, and so you’re find with just collecting it some time in the distant future (or never). Or maybe the theory is that gratitude somehow makes us more logical? Either way, it sounds like it works! 🙂

    I think I’ve also heard that temporal discounting abilities vary widely from person to person. It actually sounds a LOT like the marshmallow experiment, to be honest. Oh my gosh, wait, this is *exactly* the marshmallow experiment, except for adults! I think in the actual marshmallow experiment they found that the kids who could wait 2 minutes for a second marshmallow had higher SAT scores and higher incomes later in life, or something like that.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment

    Interesting stuff!

  4. I love psychological studies – especially cool that this one can be applied towards money. It makes complete sense that sadness would make people more apt to focus on the present instead of the future. I know that when I’m having a bad day, it’s much harder to come up with energy or motivation to keep hustling at night. This probably has something to do with people who can’t get out of debt. If they get too depressed about their financial situation, then they will only focus on the here and now, one day at a time. Sometimes that can be important, but you need to be thinking about the future too.

    • MaggieBanks

      That’s absolutely a connection, Harmony. Temporal choices can be savings or debt repayment or anything that puts tomorrow over today. I’m sure that looking at how grateful you are for how far you come makes you motivated to put that much more toward the debt rather than looking at how far you have left to go.

  5. Inside Out!! I love it. Joy is my favorite. 🙂 This is fantastic. I’ve always felt gratitude, but it’s amazing that when you focus on it & physically write it down every day how much delayed gratification increases. I’ve been incorporating gratitude journaling into my days & it just makes my heart feel lighter, that money isn’t so much of a pressing issue. Thanks for breaking down this study, very fascinating!

    • MaggieBanks

      Yes! Writing down gratitude is great for so many outcomes! And realizing you’ve already hit “Enough” in so many ways makes it so much easier to delay the gratification, as you said.

  6. So interesting. A good reminder I should complete my gratitude diary for today.
    I wonder if I also sometimes do the reverse and think too much about the future, and save for the future so much it is not healthy for today?

    • MaggieBanks

      Gratitude diaries work great for so many outcomes! Money is tricky finding a balance between today and tomorrow, but you know when you you’ve hit your “enough” for today.

  7. This makes me wonder: Is there anything gratitude can’t do??? Seriously, I feel like tuning into some gratitude helps everything. Makes us happier, makes us more generous, makes us more patient. Now if only it could make our investments grow so we can quit our jobs! :-p

    • MaggieBanks

      Seriously! Gratitude is awesome. And luckily, most PF bloggers talk about it. But it’s not that common in the general populace. If everyone was a little more grateful, people would be a lot less selfish. 🙂

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