Happy to Wait

“Emotions have historically received a bum rap from decision researchers” write economists John Ifcher and Homa Zarghamee. In a forthcoming paper called Happiness and Time Preference: The Effect of Positive Affect in a Random-Assignment Experiment, they address the tricky and oft-ignored role of emotion in decision-making. Their study measured whether positive affect impacts time preference – that is, whether people are more patient when they’re happy. They found that people are indeed more willing to wait when they’re in a good mood. As an individual’s rate of time preference affects the actual decision they make, knowing the relationship of short term emotions to time preference points to how to nudge individuals to make long term decisions instead of short-term ones. [%comments]

Ian Kemmish

One suspects that "good" vs. "bad" moods is way too coarse a criterion.

Everyday experience suggests that depression lengthens time preference whereas irritation shortens it, yet this researcher would apparently merely classify both as "bad" moods.

Similarly, the euphoria of an impending wedding seems unlikely to length one's time preference....

Eileen Wyatt

The researcher didn't deal with bad moods at all. The experimental design compares:

(a) a treatment group that was shown happy film clips
(b) a control group that was shown a "neutral" film clip.

The research subjects (undergrads) then SELF-REPORTED how they would behave in 30 situations that involved what they would want to be paid in order to wait a specific amount of time. They were also told their payment for participation would be based on a randomly chosen answer from their 30 questions, giving them an incentive to charge high.

So the results could as readily be interpreted to say that undergrads who've seen a happy film clip will charge less for participating in research studies, presumably because the happy clip was perceived as a greater reward than the neutral one.

Todd Kashdan

I happen to love comment #1 by Ian. To be succinct, context matters and all positive emotions are not equal. While joy and enthusiasm appear to broaden our attention span, interest/curiosity has been shown to narrow our attention to zone in on something, explore it, learn from it, and grow from it. Similarly, as Ian mentions, anger often pushes us in a direction similar to positive emotions where we are motivated to approach the world whereas emotions such as anxiety and sadness push us toward withdrawing or escaping from the world. But even that is too simplistic as research shows that about 80% of people with social anxiety problems try to withdraw from situations to avoid feeling anxious whereas ~20% of people with social anxiety problems respond to their anxiety by being aggressive and impulsive.

It might be better to think of "positive" emotions as those that are useful in helping us attain highly valued, personally meaningful goals. From this perspective, in certain contexts, anger, anxiety, and sadness are "positive" even though more often then not they get in the way of our goal attainment (and in those situations, can be considered "negative").

Sometimes soundbites simply don't capture the complexity of human nature and can actually interfere with understanding how to live well.

Todd Kashdan
Department of Psychology
George Mason University
Lab: http://psychfaculty.gmu.edu/kashdan/
Blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious


Greg Z

@Ian K

They are comparing "happy" vs "neutral". There are many kinds of "bad" mood but one kind of good. Regarding weddings, many people I know seem happy to wait for months after they decide to go for it, given the incentive of a "better" wedding (venue of choice, better planning of details etc).


"They found that people are indeed more willing to wait when they're in a good mood."

I can't believe that this took a scientific study to figure out. When I'm in a bad mood, my patience is much much lower.

David Chowes, New York City

Of course, affect has an effect on decision making -- because affect is a determinent of perception.

And don't they say [and, who are "they" anyway?] that perception is reality.

Mojo Bone

...and in other news, studies show people prefer a steak dinner to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.


Could this have implications for how poorer people behave? In many countries the poorest underclass is known for apparently self-destructive behaviour: drinking too much, smoking, taking drugs, gambling. These are all actions with short-term benefits but long-term negative consequences. It seems plausible that a poorer person would generally be less "happy" than a richer one, perhaps making them tend to make quick decisions with little concern for consequences.

Bill McGonigle

Perhaps now auto dealers will start putting coffee, TV's, comfy chairs, and WiFi in their waiting rooms. Oh, wait.

G.K. Chesterton

"Emotions have historically received a bum rap from decision researchers" .

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

I wonder

This certainly confirms daily experience at the "blindingly obvious" level. People are happy to wait in line at the amusement park for an hour, but pitch a fit if they spend ten minutes waiting for tech support. (Nobody ever calls tech support because they're having a good day.)

An Anonymous Volunteer


I think that you make a really interesting point, that perhaps a lack of happiness among poorer classes helps contribute to their continued poverty. The idea that people who make less money are less happy, and as a result less willing to invest in their future rings true to me. Given the recent research connecting happiness and total income (happiness climbs with income until $75,000, then drops off, http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2016291,00.html), it seems to me that this paper helps explain how emotion can contribute to a poverty cycle in which the unhappy poor invest less in the future, and become even poorer and more unhappy.