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
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