Human beings do not like to wait for things. Not only do most people want instant gratification, they also believe that waiting too long for something implies greater risk, says Michael Bixter, a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology. This is known as the implicit risk hypothesis, and it is based on the perception that delayed rewards may be less certain than immediate rewards.
“Clearly, though, waiting for delayed consequences has delayed benefits, which is why not spending your entire paycheck and putting it into a retirement account has greater benefits, but so many people find it very difficult to do this.”
Bixter added that “the uncertainty associated with delay is one of the reasons why human beings discount the value of rewards over time.”
That’s fueled by the perception that as the delay until a reward’s delivery increases, there is a corresponding increase in the number of intervening events that could prevent the reward from actually being received.
But as much as the future is vast and unknown, much of the fear associated with it has to do with the individual, Bixter said. Furthermore, the extent to which people associate risk in the future with delayed rewards can vary from person to person.
In a recent study, the results of which were presented in a paper entitled “Evidence for Implicit Risk: Delay Facilitates the Processing of Uncertainty,” Bixter showed that individuals do not automatically eschew the possibility of a future reward and they don’t always associate a future reward with uncertainty. Whether or not they choose to wait for that reward depends on the way in which the information about the reward in question is presented to them, he found: If a person is given information about a delay associated with a future reward, that facilitates the subsequent processing of risk information.
The study showed that participants were more likely to prefer larger, delayed rewards when information about the delay was presented before information about uncertainty, than when the information was presented in the opposite order, thereby showing that an actual delay for a reward and the uncertainty associated with that reward can be mutually exclusive.
Mitigate Risk by Focusing on Reward