Short on willpower? Use your imagination

By David FieldingSide view of a lady and her brain

Think of a time when you could have used some willpower. Maybe it was at the coffee counter, when you couldn’t resist that candied lemon scone. Maybe it was while you were surfing, mouse hovering over the “buy” button. Or perhaps it was much earlier. This morning in fact, when your alarm went off and you hit the snooze button. Six times.

It’s understandable. The snooze button represents the instant gratification of 10 more minutes of sleep. Your bare feet hitting the cold floor represents cold reality, but also future rewards: breakfast, a hot shower, your boss giving you a high five for beating her to the office. In fact, there’s a body of scientific evidence to suggest that those who are able to delay gratification and forgo immediate temptations enjoy greater physical, emotional and financial well-being.

But when it comes to the choices we make with our money, willpower is a mysterious thing. Not only does our ability to exert patience vary from person to person, studies have shown that it varies from one decision to the next. And our penny-pinching strength can depend on the time of day, our energy level and even whether we’re dealing with round numbers or decimals. But a new study published in Psychology Today has revealed a potential tool that could help you tap your own hidden reserves of willpower: your imagination.

Financial willpower is an expression of our ability to imagine ourselves getting more money in the future.

Psychologists already know that reframing choices as a sequence of dependent events can promote more patient behaviour. In previous studies, participants who were offered the choice between receiving “$10 today or $12 in a week,” more often preferred the $10 immediately. But when the choice was framed as “$10 today and $0 next week” or “$0 today and $12 next week,” the results switched and most preferred to wait for the $12. This newest study, performed at the University of California at Berkeley, sheds light on the reasons our brains are able to make better sense of these choices, and it has as much to do with our ability to imagine ourselves getting our hands on more money in the future as it does with the murky concept of willpower.

In one of the tests, the researchers had participants snuggle into an fMRI machine (with a pillow and blanket to keep comfy and still), then asked them a series of would-you-rather questions. What they found was that when subjects worked through the sequentially-framed questions—would you rather have $0 today and $120 next week?—there was increased activity in the region of the brain associated with imagination, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate and the hippocampus.

“People often have difficulty forgoing immediate temptations, like hitting the snooze button on the alarm, for the sake of later benefits,” Jenkins explained in a statement. “Past work has shown that a subtle change in how choices are framed can increase people’s patience. We found evidence that this change affects patience by increasing imagination and its role in decision-making.”

So how can you use this information? The next time you’re surfing Airbnb, waffling over a not-so-glamorous weekend getaway, reframe your choice in a way that will better make use of your imagination: “I can take this quick getaway this weekend and go nowhere next month…OR I can have a staycation this weekend and have enough to hit up NYC next month.”

Patience has always been a virtue. Now your imagination can be one too.

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