Decisional Conflict Predicts Impatience
Self-control conflicts—decisions that pit short-term temptations against long-term goals—are some of the most difficult decisions that individuals face, as these decisions set desires of immediate gratification against the knowledge that patience produces larger rewards. Despite the centrality of conflict to theoretical and lay understandings of self-control, conflict is less thoroughly investigated than choices or attitudes. In this article, we measure real-time spatial conflict through participants’ mouse movements during self-control decision making in the context of intertemporal choice. Across four studies, we show that (a) online conflict as measured by mouse movements is highly correlated with the subjective difficulty of the decision, and (b) conflict within these decisions strongly predicts individuals’ impatience as indexed by their discount function. We discuss implications of these findings, including for the underlying mechanisms of self-control, as well as the methodological approach of using mouse-tracking to measure conflict elicited by self-control dilemmas.