Rational Temporal Predictions Can Underlie Apparent Failures to Delay Gratification
delay of gratification
An important category of seemingly maladaptive decisions involves failure to postpone gratification. A person pursuing a desirable long-run outcome may abandon it in favor of a short-run alternative that has been available all along. Here we present a theoretical framework in which this seemingly irrational behavior emerges from stable preferences and veridical judgments. Our account recognizes that decision makers generally face uncertainty regarding the time at which future outcomes will materialize. When timing is uncertain, the value of persistence depends crucially on the nature of a decision maker's prior temporal beliefs. Certain forms of temporal beliefs imply that a delay's predicted remaining length increases as a function of time already waited. In this type of situation, the rational, utility-maximizing strategy is to persist for a limited amount of time and then give up. We show empirically that people's explicit predictions of remaining delay lengths indeed increase as a function of elapsed time in several relevant domains, implying that temporal judgments offer a rational basis for limiting persistence. We then develop our framework into a simple working model and show how it accounts for individual differences in a laboratory task (the well-known “marshmallow test”). We conclude that delay-of-gratification failure, generally viewed as a manifestation of limited self-control capacity, can instead arise as an adaptive response to the perceived statistics of one's environment.