Delayed Gratification in Political Participation

Date01 May 2021
Published date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17IMYZjy1JQZuo/input 972352APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20972352American Politics ResearchSchafer
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(3) 304 –312
Delayed Gratification in Political
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20972352
Jerome Schafer1
Delayed gratification is associated with myriad desirable outcomes—like eating right and saving money. In this article, I
explore whether it also increases political participation. To this end, I provide an explicit decision-theoretic framework,
which predicts that less patient individuals are less willing to vote and to donate; these forms of participation are costly
before Election Day, but their rewards are partially delayed. I then discuss how to elicit individual time preferences with real
monetary incentives. In the empirical analysis, I provide evidence from a representative U.S. survey showing that monetary
discount rates predict turnout and donations. Though mostly correlational and exploratory, these findings hold when
controlling for a host of potential confounds. Overall, my results indicate that impatient types are less likely to prepare
for and ultimately participate in elections. This sheds light on when and how deep psychological traits constrain political
decisions involving a trade-off over time.
time preferences, individual differences, political participation, behavioral political economy
In Aesop’s classic fable, the grasshopper luxuriates during a
the pleasure of fulfilling a civic obligation. However, the
warm summer day, while the ant stores food for the winter. A
instrumental and social rewards of participation are enjoyed
vast literature in psychology and economics suggests that
over time and, for the most part, do not materialize until after
individuals are torn between an impulse to act like the indul-
the election. Thus, they are discounted by those who care less
gent grasshopper and an awareness that the patient ant often
about the future. I then extend this framework to donor
gets ahead in the long run (McClure et al., 2004). The ability
behavior and discuss how the costs of monetary contribu-
to delay gratification shapes how individuals discount the
tions are likely separated in time from their benefits.
future and plays a role in a host of social behaviors that
This framework sheds light on how individual differences
involve patience.1 These behaviors range from the prosaic—
in time preferences may affect the composition of the elector-
whether to exercise and how much food to eat at a meal—to
ate. Prior work indicates that the (opportunity) costs of politi-
life-changing decisions about education, health, and savings
cal participation are relatively higher for individuals with low
(Berns et al., 2007). Thus, time preferences may also con-
socio-economic status (SES) (Brady et al., 1995). In this
strain political decisions—like voter turnout and campaign
study, I suggest a complementary explanation, focusing on
donations—that involve a trade-off between immediate
benefits rather than costs. Specifically, less educated citizens
effort and delayed benefits. Yet, political scientists have only
also tend to be less patient and may be less willing to adopt
recently begun exploring the psychological roots of time
behavior with deferred benefits such as voting and donating.
preferences and their consequences for political time hori-
This suggests that potential policy interventions targeting
zons (Fowler & Kam, 2006; Hill, 2019; Holbein, 2017;
turnout and donations are constrained by individual differ-
Jacobs & Matthews, 2012; Sheffer et al., 2017).
ences in time preferences. I discuss how this relates to field
In this study, I explore the links between the delay of grat-
experimental evidence on the effectiveness of different Get-
ification and different forms of political participation. The
Out-The-Vote interventions including financial incentives
contribution is twofold. First, I provide an explicit frame-
(Panagopoulos, 2013), expression of gratitude (Panagopoulos,
work showing how time preferences may influence various
2011), and plan making (Nickerson & Rogers, 2010).
types of political decisions. Drawing on previous work (e.g.,
Fowler & Kam, 2006), I posit that voter turnout involves
1University of Munich, Germany
delayed gratification. Yet, I go one step further by specifying
which aspects of political participation involve time dis-
Corresponding Author:
Jerome Schafer, University of Munich, Oettingenstr 67, Muenchen 80539,
counting. For example, voting has immediate costs and pro-
vides some—although limited—instant rewards, including

The second contribution is empirical. Questions about
For simplicity, I distinguish between five factors that
time preferences are rarely included in political surveys.
affect political participation: cost, warm glow, time discount-
Thus, prior knowledge of their relationship with political
ing, instrumental benefits, and expected social image. These
variables is limited. In the study most similar to mine, Fowler
terms do not exhaust the motives to engage in politics.
and Kam (2006) employ an incentivized measure of time
However, they allow me to specify the trade-off between
preferences and find an association with self-reported turnout
immediate costs and partially delayed rewards. This frame-
among student subjects. In this paper, I use a large nationally
work builds on the calculus of voting and is most similar to
representative U.S. panel (N = 1,815) measuring preferences
DellaVigna et al. (2016), but I also discuss how it can be
over sooner, lower and later, larger monetary payments, and
extended in order to study time discounting in other forms of
establish novel links between time discounting and voter reg-
participation. Formally, this conceptual framework may be
istration, political knowledge, as well as monetary contribu-
summarized in one equation, with individuals participating if
tions. By describing the political correlates of time preferences,
the net expected utility of doing so is positive:
my results suggest that impatient types are less likely to pre-
pare for, and ultimately participate in elections. The observed
c + g + δ( pV + S) 0
 (1)
correlations are robust to controlling for a host of covariates
including income and education.2
I also discuss the limitations of these—mostly correla-
tional and exploratory—results. The prior literature shows
The first term, c is the transaction and opportunity cost of
that time preferences form a psychological construct that is
voting. It materializes in time taken away from other activi-
distinct from risk preferences and the big-5 personality traits
ties, and money spent on the way to the polls. A significant
but is related to cognitive skills and family background
part of these costs is incurred prior to Election Day, including
(Dohmen et al., 2012; Falk et al., 2019). Thus, distinguishing
registration, procurement of identification, and information.
the effects of time preferences from other correlated factors
is challenging in a multiple regression framework, given that
Warm Glow
unobserved confounds may lead to omitted variables bias,
and that adding controls for income, education, and cogni-
The second term, g is the warm glow of political participa-
tive ability may create a “bad control” problem (Angrist &
tion. This captures the motivation of taking an action
Pischke, 2008), as they may themselves be affected by time
believed to be virtuous even though the impact may be neg-
preferences (Falk et al., 2019). Yet, the literature suggests
ligible. Elections and campaigns are public goods and pose
that the predisposition to be patient develops in early life
a free-rider problem because outcomes benefit all citizens
(Mischel et al., 1989) and tends to be a relatively stable trait
regardless of their contribution. However, individuals may
in adulthood (Meier & Sprenger, 2015); though its behav-
internalize a sense of civic duty to vote and feel better about
ioral consequences may vary depending on situational influ-
themselves when considering the positive externalities of
ences such as thirst (Kuhn et al., 2014), sleep (Bessone et al.,
their action (Gerber et al., 2008).
2020), or emotions (Meier, 2019), and are also affected by
Warm glow differs from the instrumental and expressive
psycho-social skills that may be malleable (Alan & Ertac,
rewards of mobilization in that it is less separated in time
2018; Duckworth et al., 2007). As such, individual differ-
from its costs. Yet, individuals may also feel the intrinsic
ences in fundamental time preferences can be thought of as
benefits of participation after the election, when remember-
mostly pre-dating, rather being caused by, social influences,
ing that they voted. For simplicity, the model assumes that g
which offers an opportunity to begin studying how they
and δ are independent, although that may understate the role
affect political attitudes and behaviors.
of time discounting in the decision to participate in elections.
Hill (2019) investigates the possibility that less patient indi-
Theoretical Framework
viduals may be less willing to adopt a social norm constrain-

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