Delayed Gratification, Intelligence Linked

Intelligence and Self-Control Come From the Same Area of the Brain, New Research Shows

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 10, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

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.