Deferring gratification: The battle in the brain

An experiment reported in the journal Science suggests that short-term and long-term thinking engage different brain systems, and observers can tell which is dominant by recording the brain in action.

It's well known to economists and psychologists that people seeking a reward do not treat each moment of delay equally. If you offer them a choice between $10 today and $11 tomorrow, they usually choose the smaller amount. If the choice is between $10 a year from now and $11 a year and a day from now, most people choose $11.

Fourteen Princeton College students participated in a version of this experiment while functional magnetic resonance imaging recorded sugar and glucose consumption and blood flow in their brains. They were offered a choice of gift certificates in amounts that would be larger if they waited for varying periods of time from two to six weeks.

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