CU-Boulder researchers link trust to delayed gratification

September 18, 2013

CU-Boulder researchers link trust to delayed gratification

By Charlie Brennan Camera Staff Writer

Posted:   09/13/2013 12:18:43 AM MDT | Updated:   6 days ago


The ability to delay gratification has been tied directly to trust in a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado.

New research has shown that people are more comfortable in delaying their gratification if they have a greater level of trust in the individual in a position to deliver the desired items or results.

If this seems only to make sense, Laura Michaelson, a co-lead author of the study, admitted, "That's a pretty common reaction."

However, Michaelson -- a doctoral student in CU's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience -- added, "We weren't surprised by the results, but we thought it was important work to demonstrate empirically."

The research team also included former CU graduate student Alejandro de la Vega, doctoral student Christopher Chatham -- now at Brown University -- plus psychology and neuroscience professor Yuko Munakata. Their study appears in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Together, they recruited participants through use of Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online tool scientists use to link up with a large number of people from differing backgrounds whose curiosity outstrips their need for compensation.

The 250 adult subjects in the study were paid up to $1 to take part in the experiment. Each was asked to read profiles and vignettes of three fictional people, then rate those characters for trustworthiness. Then they were asked if they would choose to accept a smaller amount of money offered immediately by that person, or whether they would take a larger amount, for which they would have to wait.

The results demonstrated that participants were less likely to put off gratification when they distrusted the person extending the reward.

A second phase of the experiment also paired the written sketches of the characters with faces, which were clearly untrustworthy, or trustworthy, in appearance.

"One thing that I really think is important about these results, and that I like to emphasize, is that our studies show failure to delay gratification doesn't always necessarily reflect a lack of ability or of patience or a lack of self control," Michaelson said. "Instead, these failures might sometimes reflect a rational decision-making process" relating to trust levels.

"Depending on the sort of person who is making the offer, "You might want to take what you can get, while you can get it," she added.

De la Vega, a graduate student also in CU's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, said the study showed the importance of trust for those making financial investments -- an important way in which many experience delayed gratification.

However, he said, "You have to be able to balance the social information you're getting with maybe a more holistic vision of what you should be doing financially. If you're overly sensitive to these social cues, there's a right level at which you can incorporate this; if you do it too much, you might be putting yourself into a position where you're never trusting people."

A next phase of the researchers' study will involve giving the subjects face-to-face experience with those they will then either have to trust -- or not trust -- to deliver on some promised reward.

"What we haven't done yet is when you actually interact with somebody and see what they behave like; and that's definitely something on our to-do list for future research," de la Vega said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or