The desire for instant gratification, and the battle to tame this base impulse, is a universal struggle. As the wise 13th-century Persian poet Rumi once said: “The intelligent desire self-control; children want candy.”
Most animals, when presented with a treat, will gobble it up immediately. But as humans, we boast about our ability to delay gratification, though often this is because we believe a larger benefit awaits us in the future if we control ourselves.
It’s not a perfect skill by any means—but I am usually slightly better than my beagle at savoring a treat.
A theory of minds
How are we able to achieve this? A leading theory holds that it is our ability to read someone else’s mind that holds the key to the answer. Now you may be picturing the mentalist Derren Brown waving his fingers and staring intently at a volunteer from his audience, but what I am referring to is something called the “Theory of Mind.” This is the ability to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes, so to speak, though it also applies to being able to put ourselves in our own shoes in an imagined future.
Theory of mind (TOM)1 is defined as the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. This clever little trick, in my opinion, is what really differentiates us from the animals, and is the foundation of empathy. Sure, it has been found that apes and even rats have some form of this ability,2 but we are the ones that really excel at it. And most movies would be rather boring if we didn’t.
So, does TOM allow a person to project their future self to their current self? For instance, does it allow me to mentally picture my future self having trouble fitting into my jeans after eating that third donut, and thereby stop me from picking it up? Or, in what is known as temporal discounting, does it stop me from taking a pile of money now instead of waiting to get an even bigger stash of cash later?
A cunning experiment
To test this theory a group of scientists at the University of Zurich and the Heinreich Heine University conducted a clever experiment.3 They looked at an area of the brain called the temporoparietal junction (or TPJ for short), the region believed to be all-important in allowing us to form TOM.4
They figured that if you could switch this area off, people should also have difficulty choosing options that have a larger future benefit over an immediate benefit. They used a method called disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS),5 where a magnetic coil placed near the skull produced small electric currents in the brain and inhibited the activity of the TPJ.
They then carried out two tasks with their subjects. In the interpersonal task, subjects made choices between a selfish reward for only themselves (from 75 to 155 Swiss francs) and a prosocial reward that was equally shared between themselves and another person (75 Swiss francs each).
In the time-based decision task, subjects chose between a variable reward (0 to 160 Swiss francs) given immediately and a fixed reward (160 Swiss francs) received after a delay of 3 to 18 months.
Subjects with an inhibited TPJ (brain switched off with the big magnet) were more likely to take the money upfront, rather than delay gratification and wait for a larger prize. They were also less likely to share the money with another person.
What the researchers essentially found is that we weigh the needs and desires of our current self against the needs and desires of our imagined future self. To quote the study’s author, “The function of perspective-taking is essential to both of these tasks,” in terms of both “thinking how someone else would feel if you give them money and also how you yourself in the future would feel with that money.”
The Theory of Me
What are the implications of this?
Investing in your future is hard.6 It is a trade-off from missing a reward right now versus gaining one later. The easier it is to picture yourself with those future rewards, the more you can empower self-control. Advertising often fails on this, simply spewing out features and benefits without really allowing the audience to take this first-person perspective. Affording a first-person perspective takes the load off the individual having to project themselves into the future and allows them to be emotionally engaged.
Using accurate metaphors and concrete illustrations is one way to help envisage a consumer’s viewpoint and emotionally transport their outlook.7 For instance, showing an older version of the target audience enjoying their retirement with their family makes saving more salient, or displaying an avatar of what you would look like after following a gym plan would make getting up earlier in the morning to hit the weights a bit more motivating.
So, I would like to call this the “theory of me.” I urge that whenever you are trying to get somebody to do something in the future, use the “theory of me” and make it easier for them to see themselves in their future skin. By making it more pleasant and salient, you are going to make that decision much easier.