When I was an undergraduate student, I took a class on learning and behavior. I do not recall if it was required for the psychology major or an upper-level elective that I chose, but it was a fascinating course. The professor ended up advising me for my capstone project teaching rats to push buttons.
It was incredibly meta to learn about how we learn. But learning is not just about facts or skills – our brains learn what activities lead to desirable consequences, and we want to do those things again.
Do things that lead to consequences you want, and avoid things that lead to consequences you do not want. It sounds so simple, right? So, why would anyone engage in a behavior that could be seen as self-sabotaging? Why would anyone make a choice when they know it will have a negative consequence?
The answer is, there is a massive difference between short-term and long-term reinforcement. We learn best from immediate reinforcement, so we are wired to seek choices that give us the fastest reward.
The chemical that gives us that positive reward feeling is called dopamine, and our brains want to do the activity that gives us dopamine the fastest.
The graph above shows how important something seems to be based on how long we would have to wait for reinforcement. Say you have a test next week, and you want to do well. The purple line is doing well on the test – it is very important to you, so you are motivated to study. But if the test is still several days away, it is difficult to anticipate the reinforcement and be motivated to study. The farther away the test is, the less important studying feels.
Let’s say it’s Friday night, and you could study for the test, or you could go out with friends. The blue line represents going out – in the long-term, you can see that it is more important to do well on the test than to go out. But in the moment, on Friday night with the test several days away, going out feels more important. That reinforcement is sooner, even if it is smaller in the grand scheme of your life.
Although being aware of this tendency does not make it less tempting to blow off studying, this knowledge could help you be more mindful of the choices you are making and how they will affect you.
Of course, relaxation is important, and it would not be healthy to lock yourself in your home and never socialize again. But noticing the tendency to go for short-term rather than long-term reinforcement can help in balancing working towards your future goals and enjoying the now.