Oh Lord, deliver me from temptation…but not quite yet.

—Confessions, St. Augustine, 4th century (free translation from the Latin)

When we asked ourselves what characterizes us as human, we used to answer with self-assurance, “it’s the language, stupid”. But now we know that language was not an abrupt development that happened after we diverged from the chimpanzees 4 million years ago. The chimps have the capacity to communicate with symbols such as pictures, colors, and letters. But they can’t vocalize. For this, they would need to undergo the anatomical descent of the voice box, or vocal cords, which we humans were lucky enough to have. Well chimps, maybe in a few millions years you may get lucky…


What about patience?

Pope St. Gregory I
Pope St. Gregory I

I am using “patience” in lieu of “temperance” because the latter sounds oh so self-righteous, almost saintly. In fact, sixth century Pope St. Gregory I (see picture on the right) set temperance, meaning self-control, as one of the seven holy virtues, as opposed to gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins (and he didn’t even know about type 2 diabetes). In modern usage, self-control would be part of what we call “patience”.

Enough of the semantics. The question we want answered is who has more patience, us or our closest relatives, the chimps? And why is it important? Because self-control is one of the “human” traits that we pride ourselves on. When we sit at the restaurant table, famished and overwhelmed by the delicious aromas of our favorite dish, we may salivate (that’s OK even by Emily Post’s etiquette), but we are not supposed to attack and devour the food; we exert self-control. On the other hand, put a delicious morsel in front of a chimp; the brute will not hesitate for a fraction of a second. So obviously, to exert self-control is to be human. Marc Hauser of Harvard, and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institutes in Leipzig and Berlin, set out to prove this self-evident truth. Here is a quote from their summary:

“To make adaptive choices, individuals must sometimes exhibit patience, forgoing immediate benefits to acquire more valuable future rewards. Although humans account for future consequences when making temporal decisions, many animal species wait only a few seconds for delayed benefits. Current research thus suggests a phylogenetic gap between patient humans and impulsive, present-oriented animals, a distinction with implications for our understanding of economic decision making and the origins of human cooperation.

On the basis of a series of experimental results, we reject this conclusion.

  • First, bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) exhibit a degree of patience not seen in other animals tested thus far.
  • Second, humans are less willing to wait for food rewards than are chimpanzees.
  • Third, humans are more willing to wait for monetary rewards than for food and show the highest degree of patience only in response to decisions about money involving low opportunity costs.

These findings suggest that core components of the capacity for future-oriented decisions evolved before the human lineage diverged from apes. Moreover, the different levels of patience that humans exhibit might be driven by fundamental differences in the mechanisms representing biological versus abstract rewards.”

In other words, when it comes to tangible temptations, like food, chimps are willing to exert more self-control and forgo immediate gratification in favor of a larger meal in the future. In the experiment, the choice was between one unit of goodies, like chocolate or grapes (a chimp delicacy) and three after two minutes. Chimpanzees were nearly four times more likely to wait for the big reward than humans were.

This is astonishing; I thought we were so smart, and oh so civilized. To think that we couldn’t restrain ourselves for even two minutes in order to reap a larger reward…

It turns out that the behavioral trait of self-control and patience preceded the emergence of our species. In fact, one can find the rudiments of self-control even in birds. The cute little beasties can contain themselves for a few seconds only, before succumbing to temptation; but self-control it is nonetheless. Compare that with St. Augustine. The poor saint had to pray for self-control. And you don’t have to read the text closely in order to realize that he was not talking about food only…

The other important finding of this research is that we humans possess patience of another kind. For the promise of abstract rewards, for instance, monetary reward (in case you wonder, you cannot eat money; it is symbolic—it represents what you can buy with it). But even there, our patience has its limits. Thus, if you offer a person $1 now or $3 a month from now, odds are that he will opt for the larger delayed reward. But if you offer a person $10, but only 12 months hence, patience diminishes significantly, although the return on investment would have been 1,000%! This flies in the face of economic theory that humans would always opt for the option that maximizes their return. We are still emotional animals with only conditional, and limited, capacity to make purely rational decisions. This behavior is manifested every trading day in the stock market. Most people (the crowd, or “dumb money”) will opt for the short term, in-and-out trading profits. Of course, they lose in the long term because the “smart money”, patiently waiting for the longer term reward, will ride out the fluctuations of the market and will ultimately outwit them. If you doubt it, just ask Warren Buffett.

See what we can learn from our primitive, dim-witted cousins?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.