Good things come to those who wait, the saying goes, but our perception of how quickly time passes varies from person to person. Are people who perceive time as passing quickly more willing to delay gratification?
Karolina Lempert, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychology, has been awarded a three-year, $377,484 grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to find out. Her project, “Individual and Age Differences in Temporal Discounting: The Role of Memory for Time,” looks at memory’s role in decision-making.
“Big picture, if we can change how someone organizes and remembers past experiences, we may be able to change their perspective on the future,” she predicted.
“In my prior research, I found that the episodic memory system—where we store memories about our personal pasts—helps people make more patient future-oriented decisions,” she remarked. “However, I haven’t yet figured out why that is. The relationship between time perception and decision-making is pretty complicated, but I hope this project will help us scratch the surface to figure it all out.”
Dr. Lempert will test her belief that those who remember past time intervals as having passed quickly will be more willing to delay future rewards, since their brains assume that future time intervals will go by just as quickly.
She thinks that when deciding whether to take a smaller reward now or a larger reward later, people may consciously or unconsciously recall how long those delays have taken before. “Hypothetically,” she says, “if the last 90 days felt like no time at all had gone by, then you may be more inclined to wait 90 days for a larger reward, instead of opting for an immediate reward.”
How Long Is Too Long?
To confirm her hypothesis, Dr. Lempert will run two studies: one in her Adelphi lab with a large sample of adults over age 18 and one that will involve off-site MRI scanning of adults ages 18 to 40 and over 60.
MRI imaging has shown that the more brain activity in its medial temporal lobe changes during an experience, the longer that experience will feel in retrospect. “I’ll be using functional MRI to confirm this and to see if we can link those neural signals to people’s decisions about waiting for delayed rewards,” she said.
To establish a time scale for time perception in days and weeks, Dr. Lempert’s team will ask project participants to describe how long ago a past date feels to them. To establish time scale in minutes, participants will listen to a short story and then report how long they felt the story had lasted.
Of Time and Memory
According to Dr. Lempert, by asking people to listen to a story, she can control their experience. If participants show individual differences in how long they think it took to tell the story, she will be able to see if those different recollections impact their decision-making—and willingness to delay gratification.
Dr. Lempert hopes that her research will lead to an understanding of why some people are more impatient than others, and lead to ways to help people to become more future oriented. As an example, she suggested that if impatient people think past time intervals are long-lasting, they could be encouraged to create more stable routines.
Involving Adelphi Students
Encouraging undergraduate involvement in research is a key project component, and Dr. Lempert is looking forward to recruiting students to help with data collection and analysis. Additionally, she reports that one of her PhD students has begun work on the project. “I’m excited to see what my students can accomplish working together,” she added.