New research in the Psychological Science journal suggests imagination may be as important as willpower in making delayed-benefit rational decisions.
The entry point for imagination's effects may be the way a decision is presented, researchers say. When they offered participants a choice between a reward now or a greater reward later, participants were unlikely to wait for the greater reward. However, if participants were offered both sides of the equation - no reward now and a big reward later, versus a small reward now and no reward later - they were more likely to wait. In another phase, participants who performed this "sequential" decision making (and chose patiently) reported using imaginative faculties. Those reports were confirmed by neuroimaging scans in a third phase, which showed imaginative thinking in sequential decisions versus more willpower-oriented faculties in "independent," either-or decisions.
According to researcher Adrianna Jenkins, "[the] findings suggest that imagination and willpower represent dissociable routes to patience." Moreover, as she postulated separately to the Berkeley-HAAS newsroom, "imagination is a possible route for attaining patience that may be more sustainable and practical than exerting willpower," especially when willpower is weakened by circumstances.
From an integrated healthcare perspective, the findings may be applicable to behavior changes such as exercise, eating habits, or medication adherence.