Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Current Biology 18:1 (January 8, 2008), pp. R11–R12; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.11.021 Copyright © 2008 Elsevier Ltd. Used by permission.


What is patience? Humans and other animals often make decisions that trade off present and future benefits. Should a monkey eat an unripe fruit or wait for it to ripen? Should I purchase the iPhone at its debut or wait for the price to drop in a few months? In these dilemmas, large gains often require long waits, so decision makers must choose between a smaller, sooner reward and a larger, later reward.

It sometimes makes sense to choose the smaller, sooner alternative, for example in a very rich environment, but in many natural situations, waiting for the larger, later option produces the best long-term outcome. The ability to wait for larger, later rewards in these situations is called patience — also called self-control or delayed gratification — whereas preference for smaller, sooner rewards is called impulsivity. Nonhuman animals experience the patience versus impulsivity dilemma in many contexts, including foraging for food, searching for mates and territories, investing in offspring, and cooperating with others.