Ant vs. Grasshopper: Study examines whether instant or delayed gratification is better

STORRS, Conn. — An ancient parable that debates how and whether we should approach activities that confer delayed gratification may have new rationale from both perspectives, a new study finds.

Researchers at UConn examined the premise of one of Aesop’s fables, titled “The Ant & the Grasshopper,” hoping to determine whether there was more of a benefit to being an “ant” (preparing for the future) or a “grasshopper” (living in the moment).

Grasshopper and ant in flower
The ant and the grasshopper may have different approaches to their lives in the famous Aesop’s Fable, but a new study finds both can be right.

To conduct their experiment, the researchers recruited hundreds of respondents from Amazon’s MTurk service, asking them a variety of questions online.

First, respondents were asked to evaluate how they handled financial decisions, including their propensity for saving.

Respondents then were asked to rate their level of agreeability with certain statements (e.g., “I never settle for second best”) on a five-point scale, in hopes that this would reveal how they viewed success, and whether their outlook was future-oriented.

The researchers noted that individuals who fall into the category of being future-oriented and good savers are “maximizers,” meaning they try to maximize the positive in their lives, in part by carefully considering decisions.

“Maximizers are forward thinking, conscientious, optimistic, and satisfied,” says lead researcher Susan Zhu in a university news release. “Though a lot of work and thought go into those decisions, maximizing has beneficial outcomes.”

This carefulness, however, can sometimes lead to indecision. Previous studies have shown that maximizers are less happy, more stressed, and possibly more likely to regret decisions that they make.

Meanwhile, their counterpart is the satisficer, who opts for instant gratification and can easily move from one decision to the next.

The findings from this most recent study shows that being a maximizer isn’t all bad, for all that a maximizer is maligned for having his head in the clouds.

Choosing the path of the ant “can be harder or more time-consuming in the moment, but it appears to have the best outcome in the long run, even if it isn’t fun,” explains Zhu.

Ultimately, “maximizing can be a good thing,” argues Zhu. “Previous research looked at decision-making difficulty and other negative outcomes, and that added a negative connotation to maximizing tendencies. We’re trying to frame it in light of the high standards and the beneficial outcomes, to help reshape the view of maximizing.”

Maybe a work hard, play hard mantra is the best course of action in the long-term, the researchers suggest.

The study’s findings were published in May in the Journal of Individual Differences.


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