The results of a charitable donation aren’t always seen right away, which is why delayed gratification is very much a part of the process. But where does the ability to accept delayed gratification come from? Researchers at McGill recently discovered that a connection between the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens is responsible for our ability to make decisions based on delayed gratification. Conversely, damage to this connection can make it difficult for patients to choose to delay their gratification.
In a study of lab rats, which have a lot of similarities to humans, the researchers found that rats could be trained to press either of two buttons, to either receive a treat now, or four treats after a short delay. They found that the healthy rats, after figuring out which button did which, would almost always choose delayed gratification, waiting a little longer for a larger reward. If the rats had to wait too long, or the reward wasn’t enough, they would go with the immediate reward, much like humans.
However, after the link between these two areas of the brain was severed, the rats would never utilize the delayed button and would only go for the immediate reward. The hippocampus is expected to be involved in decisions about time, while the nucleus accumbens is a reward center, so the connection, once determined, made sense to the researchers.
They also noted that other kinds of damage, namely contusions in other parts of the brain, could impair the connection between these areas, resulting in a rejection of delayed gratification. They point out that in people with certain kinds of brain disease, disorders like ADHD, the very young, and the very old, there’s evidence of difficulty in choosing delayed gratification.
More research is needed, but a better understanding of this connection could lead us to some interesting places. It might also help us to better understand how humans make decisions, such as what charities they become involved with.