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Patience is a virtue

Patience is a virtue

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Economics Professor Thomas Dohmen would like to set up a long-term, large-scale research project to see if there is a causal connection between patient behaviour (in economic terms) and income. And if there were, what would be the best way to stimulate this behaviour.

Would you rather have €100 today or €150 in twelve months' time? And preferably €100 now or €140 in a year's time? Or €100 today or €160 in a year's time? “With questions like these, you can measure how ‘patient’ people are economically,” says Dohmen. “What is the amount where it no longer matters whether they get the €100 or the higher amount? The higher this amount, the more patient people are.”

Dohmen previously researched the patience of 80 thousand people in 76 different countries using questions like the ones above. He looked at the differences between countries, but also between compatriots.

What appeared, was that “rich countries such as Australia, the United States, Germany and also the Netherlands, are much more patient than poor countries in Africa and especially South America.” Dohmen thinks that culture, living environment and climate play a major role. “Over the past seventy-thousand years, man has populated the world from Africa. People in cold countries need to take the future into account more so than people in countries closer to the equator, where at any given time there is sufficient food to be found. It’s the same with animals. Squirrels in North America hoard much more than the same squirrels in Africa.”

The most important conclusion from the previous study: “There is a very strong relation between patience and income: more patient people – and hence more patient countries – have more money.” Of course various other matters play a role too, but according to Dohmen’s model, patience is the main factor (60 per cent). “This is most likely because patient people invest more in themselves (education), in capital (savings): so therefore in the future.”

But does a person become more patient because of a high income? Or does that person have a high income because he or she is patient? A classic chicken-and-egg issue. “I expect the latter, but that is difficult to say after our first study,” says Dohmen. “We only found a relation, which says nothing about causality. I would very much like to research that. If that relation is actually causal, then we have found the possible key (patience) to fight poverty in the world.”

He not only wants to measure patient behaviour. “In addition, I would like to set up institutes in some of the countries near the equator – which are very normal in rich countries – that promote patient behaviour. For example banks that give children gifts for having a savings account with the bank, or a government that guarantees the money in savings accounts up to a certain amount. If the bank go bankrupt, people will still receive their money. But also organisations that monitor that contracts are complied with, as well as vaccination programmes: a higher life expectancy results in people concentrating on the future and putting more money aside. I would prefer to do this for 35 to 40 years, so that I could follow whole generations. Then I would really be able to see whether the relation is a causal one, whether there are differences between generations, whether my intervention makes people more patient, and whether there are differences between countries with and without new institutions.”



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