behavioral economics

Impatient People Can’t Wait to Procrastinate

Photo: Lucidio Studio Inc./Corbis

People who are impatient don’t like to wait for stuff. This is obvious. But, ironically, their tendency to prioritize the present over the future sometimes means that they end up waiting on themselves. According to a cleverly designed new study in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, impatient people tend to be procrastinators.

Behavioral economist Ernesto Reuben, of Columbia Business School, and his study co-authors used a classic way to measure patience, but with a little twist. Experimenters in these kinds of studies will often give their human lab rats the option of either taking less money — but they get it right now — or significantly more, only they have to wait a couple of weeks for it. If you choose to wait, this suggests you’re cool with a little delayed gratification, which in turn suggests all sorts of positive things about your personality and decision-making abilities. If you take the money and run, on the other hand, you are probably not a very patient person.

But instead of offering cash, as psychologists who run this sort of study normally do, Reuben and his colleagues offered checks, so that they could track how long it took the study participants — all MBA students at the University of Chicago — to cash them. Nearly 60 percent of those who took the check immediately ended up taking more than two weeks to cash it, which meant they could’ve earned more money — in some cases, up to $100 more — if they’d just chosen to wait in the first place. Thirty percent of the students who took the check right away waited more than a month to cash it, and 15 percent never cashed it at all.

It seems, the researchers argue in their paper, that the kind of people who want stuff now now now also tend to be the kind of people who can’t be bothered to do something as boring (but beneficial!) as going to the bank. For the sake of your future self, maybe it’s time to learn a little patience. 

Impatient People Can’t Wait to Procrastinate