Present bias: Why you go for the junk food first, and plan healthy meals in the future

You will always pick what you can enjoy now over one you will enjoy later.

Between $50 now and $100 a year later, chances are you’ll pick the first one. Why wait so much for an extra $50, and who knows what happens in a year, right? Now, between $50 in five years, and $100 in six years, nothing has changed other than adding a delay, but now it feels just as natural to wait for the $100. Most likely you’ll be inclined to pick the later option.

A being of pure logic would think, more is better, and pick the higher amount every time, but unfortunately you aren’t a being of pure logic. Faced with two possible rewards, you are more likely to take the one that you can enjoy now over one you will enjoy later — even if the later reward is far greater. How can such behaviour be understood?

Psychologists actually know the answer to this question, and it’s the same reason you believe you will eventually do what’s best for yourself (when the time is right, when the mood is right and the stars align) but rarely do.

Many studies over the years have shown you tend to have time-inconsistent preferences. When asked if you would rather have fruit salad or a cake one week from now, you will usually choose the healthy option — fruit salad. A week later, when a slice of that chocolate cake and a plate of that fruit salad are offered, you are statistically more likely to go for the cake. “Only a thin slice; doesn’t even count. Will surely pick the salad the next time,” is what you are likely to say.

This is why your Netflix queue is full of great films and documentaries you keep passing over for run-of-the-mill guilty pleasures. It’s a choice between movies that promise to be fun and forgettable, and those that would be memorable but require more effort to absorb. In other words, the choice of what to watch right now and what to watch later is like candy bars versus carrot sticks. When you are making plans, your better angels (your System 2) point to the nourishing choices, but in the moment you go for what tastes good.

This tendency to overvalue immediate rewards at the expense of long-term goals is called Present bias.

As you might have guessed, System 1 is again the culprit here. Evolutionarily it makes sense to always go for the sure bet now since our ancestors didn’t have to think about the future much. All they had to worry about how to get by the day without getting eaten by an animal.

As discussed in a previous article, you are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now and later. Later is a murky place where anything could go wrong. So why wait for later when you can reap the benefits now.

Present bias explains why you buy tasteless healthy green vegetables only to throw them out later when you forget to eat them. Present bias is why you’ve made the same resolution for the tenth year in a row, but this time you really mean it.

It’s also the reason why right now rearranging the folders on your laptop seems a lot more rewarding than some task due in a month which might cost you your job. If you considered which would be more valuable in a month — continuing to get your pay check or having an immaculate desktop — you would pick the greater reward.

You cannot tame your System 1 simply by willpower and drive. System 1 is a child in you whose preferences will always be pleasure and novelty, and who will always have a knack for succumbing to biases. Understanding how thinking works can’t help you bypass your biases automatically, but it can show you how to use your System 2 for long term thinking, and maybe pick the greater reward once in a while. It takes practice.

Best,
Abhishek

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