Present Bias: Focus on the Now but maybe Not Always

Many times we wonder, what is it that makes us procrastinate? Why do we spend the whole day scrolling through Instagram instead of finishing the assignment that is due tomorrow? Apart from the fact that social media is designed to distract us, procrastinating isn't as simple as just being lazy. It isn't only about not wanting to do the task at hand, but more about how we humans are wired.  Procrastination is in fact related to a cognitive bias called the present bias. As the name in itself suggests, it is the tendency of humans to be biased towards the present. This means that we tend to go for short-term rewards that provide us instant gratification rather than choosing long-term benefits. Thus, even though the benefit of finishing that assignment is clearly more than simply being on Instagram, the sense of gratification is achieved faster in the latter. Therefore, our brain might as well trick us into choosing the latter.

It is important to understand why humans are actually biased towards the present. The answer lies in how our ancestors lived their lives. The times they lived in, it only made sense that they focused on the present. With the uncertainty of the future and the environment they lived in, they had no other option but to be short-sighted in their decision making. This present bias allowed them to survive and deal with the immediate threats that existed around them. Over the centuries, this outlook of theirs seems to have been so well engraved in our brains that even today we have a similar mindset. Despite us having a far more stable lifestyle and a future to actually look forward to, our brain still makes us biased towards our present. It still makes us believe that the future is a scary avenue that one shouldn't be focusing much on it.

The idea of the present bias has been studied by many researchers over the years, in order to understand to what extent such a bias can affect the lives of individuals. An interesting experiment in this field was conducted by Walter Mischel. This experiment that goes by the name of Marshmallow Test is a famous experiment which involved finding out whether children delayed gratification. It involved children being asked to either choose a marshmallow now or wait for 15-20 minutes to get two of them. This experiment, however, did not end here only. After a few years, these very children, who were by then adolescents, were traced and it was seen that the children who delayed gratification at a younger age were able to be more successful in the later period of their lives. Thus, shedding light on the connection between small decisions turning into a lifestyle.

An interesting aspect of present bias is that it is not just limited to the field of psychology but also equally important for economics. Take for an example, if you were to choose between getting a job of ₹15,000/month now, or interning for free for a year and getting a job of ₹30,000/month. You are more likely to choose the former. But if you were asked to either complete your 3 years of Bachelor's and get a job starting at ₹15,000/month or to choose an integrated programme of 4 years that would allow you to get a package starting at ₹30,000/month, then you are most likely to choose the second option. Even though there isn’t a difference between these two cases other than the time periods, your choice would potentially differ. This is because our brain can only distinguish between the present and the future.

Whether the future is three or four years down the lane, our brain fails to distinguish between them, because both are considered as far-sighted. Since our mind takes the future as uncertain it wants to make decisions for now, even though they might not be as beneficial. In economics, present bias is used when we talk about time inconsistency and discounting. Time inconsistency refers to the fact that individuals are inconsistent over time. That is, for instance, you decide to hit the gym next month, but when next month arrives, you are more likely to postpone it to another month. Thus, meaning that people aren't as rational in making decisions, but there are various social and psychological factors that govern their decisions. People have the tendency to change their choices, over different time periods even though the benefits remain the same. Richard H Thaler (a Nobel Prize Winner for his work in the field of behavioural economics) has conducted researches that show that economics and psychology are far more closely related than one can imagine, thus expanding the scope and importance of behavioural economics. He along with H M Shefrin wrote a paper titled An Economic Theory of Self-control that introduced an economic model of self-control. This model explains that people aren't only lacking self-control when it comes to not buying new clothes, or when it comes to stopping with just another episode. But the lack of self-control can also be seen towards how people handle their finances, especially saving for their retirements before it gets late. To us, saving money seems more like a loss now even though it’ll benefit us in future, and thus people tend to postpone saving money. In fact, this research has led to various social policies to emerge to help people with saving their money from early days.

Since it is wired into our system to focus on what could harm us immediately, rather than what could harm us in the long-term, present bias manifests itself in many of our actions. The concept of present bias explains why we humans tend to make self-harming choices that provide us instant gratification but clearly have harmful consequences in the future. It also explains why we tend to ignore the importance of climate change, since it doesn't seem like an instant harm to our minds.

Living in the present is important, but it isn't all we should be focused on. In reality, our lives are a combination of the past, present and future and therefore it becomes equally important to realise that the present is only a small piece in the puzzle of life. Understanding what present bias is, and how strongly it can control our decision making, allows us to be more aware of our own selves. It makes us realise that our brains aren't always thinking what's best for us and can quite a few times make impulsive decisions that might not seem so right in the years to come. Clearly, our brains are guided by the fear of the future, because of all the uncertainty it brings. So it only makes sense that we continue to ignore the future, and be in a more comfortable zone, the present. And honestly, instant gratification, no matter for how little of a time, does feel good. But it also feels fulfilling to make decisions that'll help our future selves. This is the dilemma that present bias poses. Whether to choose the time that we know of or to choose the time that'll come. It isn't easy to break away from our habits, especially the ones that are so well engraved in our nerves. Self-control and will power aren't as easily attained as we are likely to believe. But what we can do is to be more aware of how our brains have a tendency of fooling our own selves, and maybe for once not trust whatever our brain has to say.


Priyanshi Mehra

A person in her 20s trying to learn and unlearn things as I create my own path. A curious being with an endless list of passions.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.