Impatience can cause people to undervalue or miss out on future rewards. As many studies have demonstrated, if faced with the choice of receiving $100 now or $120 next year, most of us would choose the immediate payout.

But while this decision could reflect an “I want the money now” attitude, it also reflects a desire to check tasks off our list, suggests research by University of Texas’s Annabelle R. Roberts (a graduate of Chicago Booth’s PhD Program) and Booth’s Alex Imas and Ayelet Fishbach. Offering a twist on our understanding of impatience, they argue that many of us would also prefer to pay $120 now over $100 next year. More generally, we’d rather pay more or work harder now to settle a debt than keep the tab open.

This is because people are seeking cognitive closure, says Fishbach. “You prefer what is immediate, both when you’re getting a reward and when you’re paying someone else.” Say you owe someone $15, but all you have in your wallet is a $20 bill. Odds are you would hand over the $20, preferring to pay an extra $5 just to close out the debt. “The alternative is to keep thinking about it,” she says.

You’ll also work late, for free

People seek cognitive closure in various ways. In one experiment, participants were more willing to work late without pay to finish a report the evening before a vacation than they were to do so the evening before another workday. When they felt completing the report would give them closure, the effect strengthened—but even without complete closure, they were still willing to work late, perhaps to cross a few tasks off their to-do lists before vacation. 

Roberts, Imas, and Fishbach ran seven experiments in which they explored whether people would pay more, work more, or forgo money if they could get closure on a goal by doing so. In one experiment, participants were told that they were hiring someone to perform a service such as dog walking or grocery delivery. When the task was nearly completed, the participants could choose whether to pay $11 right away or $10 in three months. More wanted to pay the $11 immediately.

“Whereas people are often impatient to receive money,” the researchers write, “we found they were also impatient to pay money.”

Similarly, online workers in another experiment were given the choice to transcribe 20 10-character alphanumeric passwords (such as 3atAmynX5P) by the next day or 17 within the next month. The workers more often chose to do 20 and get the task over with as soon as possible.

Impatience, explains Fishbach, is often about removing a task from your to-do list. It’s not that people overpaying for a service or a debt have cash to burn but that they don’t want to deal with tracking what they owe.

Our better selves know patience to be a virtue, with willpower serving as our best defense against giving in to immediate rewards. And yet when it comes to tasks at hand, willpower may not be enough to stop us from choosing expediency, the research suggests.

“People aren’t comfortable with not having closure,” Fishbach says. “They can’t control themselves.”

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