The speed of cities - afterthoughts


Jason Collins


January 14, 2011

Having recently discussed cross-country variation in time preference and the pace of life, I have found it interesting reconciling the conclusions.

Richer countries tend to have residents with lower rates of time preference and a higher pace of life. Wang, Rieger and Hens noted this relationship and showed that pace of life is strongly and positively correlated with propensity to wait, an indication of time preference. The residents of the country where everyone is scurrying around have a higher ability to delay gratification. What might be a sign of impatience (the fast walking) is actually the opposite. I have a suggestions on how to reconcile these facts, but I am not yet convinced which of them are true or more important.

The first is that the subjects whose walking speed was measured were downtown during office hours. If they were employed, they were likely going to or from a work task. If work is unpleasant, an impatient person who cannot delay gratification (or conversely, tries to delay pain) might walk more slowly. Conversely, a patient person who is able to delay reward for greater returns might walk faster to take advantage of the returns from work.

The second point is that patient people tend to have higher incomes (as shown with Mischel’s marshmallows) and their time is worth more. As a result, they might rush due to the incentive effects (and despite their patience). In the richer city, more people will be in this situation.

Another possibility comes down to definitions. The way economists use the ideas such as foresight, delay of gratification and rate of time preference may not coincide with the common concept of “patience”. In my case, I consider that I have the ability to delay gratification and make decisions in a relatively time consistent manner with a low discount rate. However, I could also be considered impatient as I don’t like waiting and often rush others (and myself) through tasks (I am also a very fast walker). If we drop the common understanding of patience and limit ourselves to economic concepts such as self-control and ability to delay self-gratification, we may not need to reconcile this anomaly in the first place.

A final and related possibility is that the ability to delay gratification is actually a result of other traits, such as intelligence. A more intelligent person might have better judgement of when they should exercise patience and when not. Whether they seem patient will depend on which facet of their life we are examining.