A tiny shift in thinking, called sequence framing, may improve patience and help you make smarter decisions.

By Amanda MacMillan
June 12, 2017
Daniel Grill/Getty Images

Hitting the snooze button and snuggling back to bed feels great in the moment, but when we’re frantically rushing out the door an hour later, we always regret it. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley’s Neuroeconomics Laboratory feel our pain—so much so that they their new study focuses how, exactly, to resist temptations like these.

“Humans often make trade-offs between immediate temptations and future payoffs,” the researchers wrote in the journal Psychological Science—like deciding whether to snooze versus wake up on time, or whether to splurge on a vacation versus putting money into savings. The thing is, they added,people who tend to forgo immediate temptations and choose more patiently in those decisions also tend to enjoy greater physical, psychological, and financial well-being.”

Actually doing that is, of course, easier said than done. So the UC Berkeley team wanted to study whether a simple shift in thinking could increase people’s chances of making smarter decisions in these types of situations. The secret, they say, is to use something called sequence framing.

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Sequence framing involves thinking through the potential consequences of a decision, rather than focusing on the immediate gratification. It sounds obvious, say the researchers, but other studies have shown that this type of mindset shift can increase people’s patience and help them make better decisions. In a series of three experiments, Jenkins and Hsu set out to determine why.

In one experiment, they presented volunteers with a series of choices, like whether they’d rather have $15 tomorrow or $20 in 30 days. To some of the participants, however, the choice was framed as sequential—spelling out the later consequences as well as the immediate payoff: Would they rather have $15 tomorrow and $0 in 30 days, or $0 tomorrow and $20 in 30 days?

As suspected, people were more likely to exercise patience and choose the better ($20) deal when the options were each framed sequentially versus independently. In a second experiment, the researchers also asked participants to take notes and answer questions about their decision-making process. They found that people were more likely to imagine potential outcomes of each option when their choices were framed as sequences.

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Finally, they monitored participants’ brain activity (via functional MRI scans) while they made these types of decisions. When options were presented as a sequence, people who chose the better long-term payoff had more activity in brain regions associated with imagination. When options were framed independently, on the other hand, brain areas associated with willpower seemed more involved.

The findings suggest that both willpower and imagination can be important for practicing patience and making smart decisions, say the researchers. And in situations in which willpower is compromised—like when you’re multitasking, distracted, stressed, or tired—using imagination to think through potential consequences may be a particularly useful strategy, they say.

Their advice? When the alarm rings, think about how you won’t have time for breakfast, or how your entire day could get thrown off because of those extra few minutes of sleep. Doing so “might increase the desire to get out of bed and diminish the desire to return to sleep,” they wrote.

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