Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit

Do Things Become Good for Those Who Wait?

By Oren Shapira, Alex Shaw

“The waiting is the hardest part.”  Tom Petty

For many in pursuit of their chosen life purposes, it often seems as if the only thing that matters is progress. Any holdup—any suspension of advancement feels intolerable, and every moment of delay endured seems to palpably erode one’s well-being. While we know we should be willing to wait for things we value, the costs of this waiting can be difficult to bear, especially when they appear to simply undermine the value we hope to get from achieving our goal. But are we missing something? Can the wait actually be part of why we value these things so much?

A recent set of studies (link to PDF) by Prof. Xianchi Dai from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Prof. Ayelet Fishbach, a member of the New Path to Purpose Network from Chicago Booth, has explored this question in the context of waiting to make a choice.  A long tradition of research in behavioral science has documented that we often learn about preferences by observing our own behavior, a phenomena termed self-perception. Based on that rationale, after waiting for something (for example, waiting a year to see how things will end for Tony on “The Sopranos”), people should value it more, looking back and thinking “This must have been important for me!” More specifically, the researchers assumed that after people have waited to make a choice about a product, they will infer that this product is valuable for them, and this will affect their choices. 

purpose achieve patience progress self-control choice waiting reward behavior

© 2010 hktang

For example, in one study, participants who signed up for an online subject pool had to choose as a prize between a regular iPod Shuffle model ($69.99 worth) available sooner and a superior model ($74.99 worth) available at a later date. Participants were divided to three conditions, designed to investigate whether waiting to choose would make participants more willing to endure an additional delay to get the larger prize. In the near-future condition they chose between getting the regular model in 2 days or the superior model in 27 days. In the far-future condition they chose between getting the regular model in 15 days or the superior model in 40 days. Finally, in the waiting condition they were presented with the choice between getting the regular model in 15 days or the superior model in 40 days, but were only asked to actually make the choice when contacted 13 days later. Note that by that time, they faced the same decision as those in the “near-future” condition.

How did the time frame and waiting affect choices? Consistent with prior research showing that people are less concerned about delays in the farther future, participants were more likely to choose the larger-later option when delivery of both options was scheduled to the far future (with 37% choosing that option) rather than to the near future (26%), but this difference was relatively small. More interestingly, and as predicted, participants who waited 13 days before making the choice were much more likely to choose the larger-later option than participants in both of the two other conditions, with 60% of the participants willing to endure further delay for the superior iPod

Does that mean that waiting makes us more patient in general? Not necessarily. In fact, based on the same logic the researchers predicted that waiting to choose should make people less patient if the choice only concerns the delivery speed of a single product. In this case, waiting should boost the worth of the product, making individuals more prepared to pay a premium to expedite the delivery of the product. This is exactly what they found in another study, in which participants who were made to feel like they like it has been a while (vs. a short period) since they last had a Godiva truffle were more likely to pay a $3-fee to expedite the delivery  of Godiva truffles.

In our quest for purpose in the modern world we have become less and less tolerant of waiting, which may negatively influence our sense of well-being. In the ancient days of 56k modems people would wait an hour for a grainy 3-minute video clip. Today many people lose their minds if an HD video does not load instantaneously. Our technology continues to get almost exponentially better, but our overall happiness does not increase at nearly the same rate. This research on waiting to make choices suggests a partial solution to this problem and to the broader misery we endure when waiting to advance on our goals. Perhaps if we can learn to savor waiting just a bit, we will be happier and realize a simple truth―the waiting may be the hardest part, but the waiting itself may also be part of why such good things come to those who wait.


Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit

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