Testing Your Patience: Professor Digs into How We Decide If It's Worth the Wait

Apr 12 2019

You can have $50 today, or $100 in a month. What do you choose? A smaller reward now, or a bigger payout later?  And would your answer change if that offer was made non-verbally?

NYU Shanghai Assistant Professor of Neural and Cognitive sciences Jeffrey Erlich has been exploring how humans decide between immediate or delayed gratification.

In February, his article on delay discounting and whether a verbal or non-verbal offer affects a person’s decision between a smaller prize now or a larger one later, was published in the science journal eLife.

Erlich’s work was supported by the NYU-ECNU Institute of Brain and Cognitive Science at NYU Shanghai, of which he is a member.

While much of Erlich’s previous research had been conducted on rats and mice, this time, he wanted to test humans and to compare results across animal species. Typical animal studies use non-verbal cues and short time delays of a few seconds, while human studies use verbal offer descriptions and longer delays of weeks, months, or years. Erlich’s team wanted to find out whether people’s choices remained the same across these differences.




“The main question we wanted to ask is, ‘When subjects are making decisions based on nonverbal directions, will they express the same preferences if they’re given a verbal option?” he said. “If the answer is no, then it means that animal studies of delay discounting are not really studying the same thing as what human studies are studying.”

To answer their question, Erlich and his team at NYU Shanghai, including former undergraduate researcher Yuyue Wang ’17 and NYU postdoctoral fellow Evgeniya Lukinova, set up shop in NYU Shanghai’s Behavioral and Experimental Economics Laboratory. They tested 63 NYU Shanghai students on their abilities to wait for a bigger prize, or give into the impulse for the immediate, smaller prize.

The tests, which were conducted on computers, were both verbal and non-verbal. Erlich said they wanted to test both methods on humans to compare the results with non-verbal tests conducted on animals in the future.

The experiment showed that students’ choices were consistent across both the verbal or non-verbal test. Patient students accepted a longer wait for gratification in both tests, while impulsive students did not wait for delayed gratification in either test.   

Looking into the future, Erlich’s research provides a stepping stone to further exploration in delay discounting, particularly in the study of short-term decision making, such as impulse shopping and “pay or wait” video games. In these scenarios, scientists could use animal behavioral models to help inform how humans might react when confronted with a short-term decision.

However, when it comes to longer term decisions, such as whether to spend money now or save for retirement, Erlich cautioned that animal models might not be as helpful in explaining human decision-making.

The article is Erlich’s third publication in the non-profit journal eLife, which he called an “intentional” choice because of the journal’s dedication to open science and public accessibility. Established in 2012, eLife is an open-access scientific journal, aiming to raise awareness and understanding of innovation in science.  

“There’s a big issue in science about reproducibility and access, and eLife is part of the solution,” Erlich said.