The Present Bias Is The Reason Why Instant Gratification Ruins Our Mental Reward System
Ignorance is bliss, but not when it comes to ignoring your biases.
Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts our brain develops from experience to reduce the time taken to perform decision-making. Although you might save precious time by jumping to quick conclusions, biases are not good at judging the suitable trade-off.
It took me around five years to understand the meaning of “bias.” Once I did, I learned about them nonstop because our cognitive biases drive our decision-making more significantly than we realise.
More than 100 cognitive biases influence our decision-making process. The more you learn about them, the more you realise how much your brain is automating your daily life without your awareness.
We don’t have an evolutionary advantage over the information overload that triggers the dopamine surge.
Instant gratification is also powerful because of a cognitive bias known as the present bias. It means giving an overvalued importance to the immediate effects of a situation rather than looking at its long-term impact.
The present bias makes us accept the wrong trade-off that we could have reversed if we acknowledged the long-term impact of our decision.
Why is present bias powerful?
We’re cerebral creatures.
It means the first thought a stressful situation creates in your head is fear driven.
Why wouldn’t it be? Our ancestors survived around predators because they had to be hyper-alert all the time about all possible dangers to ensure their survival.
Because of its evolutionary roots, we act out of fear in an unknown situation. But it can be neutralised when you train your brain.
We generate around 6000 thoughts in one day. Not all of them are precious and world-changing.
Once you understand that only a subset of your thoughts is wise, letting go of fear-driven ideas becomes more evident to create mental space for the solution-driven stage.
How to overcome the present bias?
The most tangible effect of the present bias is making regretful decisions because you weren’t patient enough to wait for a broader perspective.
The way to overcome present bias is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But here is what I do.
Separate yourself from the situation. Taking a short break from the problem at hand helps us return to it with a fresh angle and recharged creativity.
When we’re open to acknowledging multiple scenarios, converging only on the immediate reward becomes less tempting and avoids the trap of single-point of failure.
Reduce the gap between the present and the future.
Sometimes you need to hear truth bombs from your inner voice.
Your future self is wiser than you. It’s the same idea I use to control my impulsive shopping behaviour.
When I’m about to blow my credit card in one click, I ask my future self if the purchase is worth the value or if I’m buying out of FOMO because of irrational temptation induced by an attractive sale.
The answer your future self gives is often hard to digest.
But that’s the feature of brutal truths. Sometimes you need to hear it from a place of tough love, even when it comes from your inner voice.
We all know soft love is only beneficial when we need a haven to relax, not when we need to get our shit together. The latter needs truth bombs.
Reading about cognitive biases will prove to you why you make the decisions you make, especially the choices that drown you in irreversible regrets.
Decision-making is a powerful skill which is also demanding for your brain because it generally requires accounting for multiple perspectives to find the best solution.
The brain quickly executes cognitive biases to save precious mental resources for the future. But when the pattern becomes autonomous, it keeps saving your energy in future too, which is the recipe for extended procrastination.
To judge whether the decisions you’re making will leave you with regret or satisfaction, here is a recap for your memory to understand the effects of present bias:
- Understand the trade-off by considering both short-term and long-term impacts.
- Don’t trust your first thought in a stressful situation because it is primarily fear-driven, not solution-driven.
- Your future self is wiser than you. Consult them for truth bombs that no people-pleasing person will tell you.
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Sanjeev is a mentor, writer, and fitness enthusiast from India. He writes about lifelong learning, personal growth, and positive psychology. When he’s not engaging with students in solving their doubts or busy writing, he’s sweating either in a workout, vlogging or playing with his cat, Jim. You can also find him on Instagram and Twitter.