28 January 2016

Uncertainty in the world will lead people – and even animals - to seek more immediate forms of gratification and fail to plan long-term.

That is one of the major themes discussed in a  publication by University of Queensland School of Psychology researchers, led by PhD candidate Mr Adam Bulley.

“People can forego immediate pleasures in the pursuit of long-term rewards if they are motivated by the possibility of positive future outcomes,” Mr Bulley said.

“However, when the future is anticipated to be uncertain or threatening, it may make sense for preferences to shift towards more immediate rewards instead.

“That’s because future rewards are considered less likely to materialise.”

Mr Bulley’s publication, Prospection and the Present Moment, was co-authored with UQ colleagues Professor Julie Henry and Professor Thomas Suddendorf.

They explore the concept of episodic foresight - our ability to imagine the future - as a trait that is flexible and can be adapted regularly, depending on external circumstances.

It is hoped their research will lead to ways of helping people with impulse-related conditions such as pathological gambling, alcoholism and obesity.

“We suggest it might be a bad idea to show smokers images of death to deter them, because it signifies a threatening future and may encourage more impulsive smoking,” Mr Bulley said.

“The upside to what we have discussed is that imagining a more positive future encourages people to become more patient.”

Another application for the research is in the field of climate change action, where the challenge is to overcome immediate personal gratification to better assist the environment long-term.

Mr Bulley noted it is not only humans that display future-oriented behaviour.

“Even single-celled organisms adjust metabolism or locomotive rate in preparation for changes in oxygen and humidity,” Mr Bulley said.

“African termites will build complex mounds with sophisticated ventilation systems that ensure adequate gas exchange and ambient temperature, in the face of forthcoming environmental changes.

“Humans however, adjust their behaviour in a much more flexible manner because they anticipate a multitude of ways the future may play out.”

Prospection and the Present Moment has been published in the Review of General Psychology.

Media: Mr Adam Bulley adam.bulley@uqconnect.edu.au , +61 7 3365 4466; Robert Burgin, UQ Communications, r.burgin@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 3035, +61 448 410 364.