Many of the decisions we make are guided by some kind of reward. Do I go through the McDonalds drive-thru window and get a burger and fries that will light my brain up like a Christmas tree, or do I delay eating until my planned meal-time and consume something healthy? Do I put part of my salary into my employer’s 401K retirement plan, or do I take the cash in my paycheck now? Do I buy the expensive camera at the retail store that I’m in, or perhaps save a portion of the price by shopping around at other stores or online? All of these decisions create a tension in our brains between a current reward and a future reward of (potentially) greater magnitude. While the brain tends to favor immediate gratification (see The Time Value of Bananas), new research shows that vividly imagining the future can help individuals make better, more future-oriented decisions.

“Although there is no doubt that humans discount the value of rewards over time, in general, individuals exhibit a particularly significant ability to delay gratification,” study author Dr. Jan Peters, of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, said in a news release.

The researchers used functional MRI to monitor the brain activity of volunteers who had to make a series of choices between smaller immediate rewards and larger delayed rewards. The results showed that the degree to which participants chose long-term rewards was predicted by signals in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain involved in reward-based decision making, and functional coupling of the ACC with the hippocampus, which is involved in imagining the future. [From Business Week – Brain Area That May Delay Need for Gratification Found.]

The most significant finding is found in this statement by Peters: “Our results reveal that vividly imagining the future reduced impulsive choice.” As individuals, if we want to make better choices, we need to spend a moment imagining the future. The immediate gratification of a greasy hamburger may seem less important if we spend a moment imagining how we might look in a bathing suit in a few weeks if we maintain our planned healthy diet.

There’s a neuromarketing takeaway here for companies that market future-oriented products, too. If you are selling retirement-oriented financial products, for example, then helping potential customers imagine the future benefits of saving now should be a key part of your advertising strategy. Your competition isn’t just other firms that offer financial services, but also the other ways the customer could spend the money right now.

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