Skip to content

    Brain & Nervous System Health Center

    Font Size

    Delayed Gratification, Intelligence Linked

    Intelligence and Self-Control Come From the Same Area of the Brain, New Research Shows
    By Caroline Wilbert
    WebMD Health News
    Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

    Sept. 10, 2008 -- Delaying gratification can be hard -- just ask any dieter faced with an ice cream sundae -- but studies show it is a sign of intelligence. Researchers from Yale University looked at why there is a connection between delayed gratification and intelligence, concluding it has to do with a particular part of the brain, the anterior prefrontal cortex.

    This part of the brain helps people to manage complex problems and deal with simultaneous goals, leading to better self-control. The study has been published in Psychological Science.

    "It has been known for some time that intelligence and self-control are related, but we didn't know why. Our study implicates the function of a specific brain structure, the anterior prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last brain structures to fully mature," Noah A. Shamosh, PhD, says in a written statement.

    In this study, researchers presented 103 healthy adults a variety of scenarios, all having to do with trading a larger financial reward down the road for a smaller one today. Participants were asked if they would trade $2,000 today for $40,000 in eight years? How about $30,000 today for $40,000 in two years? A variety of dollars amounts and time delays were used.

    The participants then underwent a variety of tests of intelligence and short-term memory. On a separate day, subjects' brains were scanned using a functional MRI (fMRI), while they performed short-term memory tasks.

    The people who scored the highest on the intelligence tests and demonstrated the most restraint in the delayed gratification tests also had the most activity, as seen on the fMRI, in the anterior prefrontal cortex. Better memory was also tied to intelligence.

    Researchers say these findings could help people develop better methods of self-control.

    "Understanding the factors that support better self-control is relevant to a host of important behaviors, ranging from saving for retirement to maintaining physical and mental health," the authors conclude.

    Today on WebMD

    nerve damage
    Learn how this disease affects the nervous system.
    senior woman with lost expression
    Know the early warning signs.
    woman in art gallery
    Tips to stay smart, sharp, and focused.
    medical marijuana plant
    What is it used for?
    woman embracing dog
    boy hits soccer ball with head
    red and white swirl
    marijuana plant
    brain illustration stroke
    nerve damage
    Alzheimers Overview
    Graphic of number filled head and dna double helix