People primarily pursue long-term goals, such as exercising, to receive delayed rewards (e.g., improved health). However, we find that the presence of immediate rewards is a stronger predictor of persistence in goal-related activities than the presence of delayed rewards. Specifically, immediate rewards (e.g., enjoyment) predicted current persistence at New Year's resolutions whereas delayed rewards did not (Study 1). Furthermore, immediate rewards predicted persistence in a single session of studying and exercising whereas delayed rewards did not, even though people report primarily pursuing these activities for delayed rewards (Studies 2 and 3). This is true for both short (1 week) and long (3 month) time frames (Study 4), and regardless of whether anticipated or materialized rewards are assessed (Study 5). Overall, whereas delayed rewards may motivate goal setting and the intentions to pursue long-term goals, a meta-analysis of our studies finds that immediate rewards are more strongly associated with actual persistence in a long-term goal.
Keywords: immediate/delayed rewards; long-term goals; motivation; persistence.