When people are willing to wait

Alice G. Walton | Dec 28, 2020

If you’re considering upgrading your phone, would you go for the very nice model that’s out now or wait for the higher-tech option that will be released in a few months? 

Chicago Booth PhD student Annabelle R. Roberts, Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, and University of California at Los Angeles’ Franklin Shaddy (a recent graduate of Booth’s PhD Program) wondered whether how you feel about the phones might impact this choice. Would tech aficionados be less willing to wait for the future model because they’d want the latest and greatest offering—or would they be more willing to wait because the forthcoming technology is more meaningful to them? Across a series of studies, the researchers find that it’s the latter: liking an item more makes people more willing to wait for it. 

In one experiment, the researchers presented participants with 12 T-shirt designs and asked them to select and rank their five favorites, from least- to best-liked. Next, they split the participants into two groups: high-liking and low-liking. The high-liking group was asked whether they would rather receive their favorite T-shirt in one size too large that week or the correct size in six months. The low-liking group was asked the same question, but regarding the shirt they’d rated as their fifth-favorite. 

People in the high-liking group were significantly more willing to wait for the correct size. The same was true for other items the team tested, and it also worked when waiting for a larger quantity of an item: people who were offered the choice between a sample of their favorite food or drink in the same week and a whole portion of it in a month were more likely to choose to wait for the whole portion than people who liked it less. 

The difference in subjective value of the item appears to drive the phenomenon. When the researchers asked participants to assign a price to a fancy, reusable water bottle, offered in regular and tiny sizes, people put a much higher value on the larger size. But when putting prices on a less fancy bottle, they priced the larger size only slightly higher than the smaller one. The greater difference between the price put on the larger bottle and the price put on the smaller one translated to choice. People were more willing to wait six months for the bigger version of the fancy bottle (but not the one that was less fancy). 

Thus, patience may have a lot to do with how much one values the reward. “The patient person is the person who cares—not the person who’s more able to wait,” says Fishbach. “People are patient when they believe the larger-later reward is worth waiting for. So, whether it’s fashion, coffee, or your savings account, when you like something, there’s a big difference between the inferior and the superior versions of it.” 

It’s worth developing patience, and not simply for the latest gadget or outfit. Higher levels of patience have been linked to positive life outcomes, including in the realms of academic achievement, health, income, and even addiction mitigation. The phenomenon observed in the study suggests that patience may be enhanced by keeping in mind how much you value an item or outcome, and reminding yourself that it will be worth the wait.