January 14, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Humans Excel at… Please Wait… Patience

Here’s another thing that distinguishes humans from animals: patience.  Current Biology usually has a “Quick Guide” feature on some aspect of biology.  In the latest issue, patience was the patient.  First of all, what is it?

Humans and other animals often make decisions that trade off present and future benefits.  Should a monkey eat an unripe fruit or wait for it to ripen?  Should I purchase the iPhone at its debut or wait for the price to drop in a few months?  In these dilemmas, large gains often require long waits, so decision makers must choose between a smaller, sooner reward and a larger, later reward.

Animals experience these tradeoffs all the time, particularly when foraging for food.  A Clark’s nutcracker (a Western bird) can, for instance, store 33,000 seeds for later consumption, “that is 33,000 decisions to delay gratification.”  But being impulsive can have its payoffs, too.  “He who hesitates is lost,” a proverb says.  If you don’t snatch at the seed in front of you, it could fall into the river.
    Following several questions and answers about patience (how it is measured, how animals measure up, etc.) came the question of interest to the human animal: “Are humans uniquely patient?”

The most extreme examples of nonhuman animal patience pale in comparison to the levels of patience seen in humans.  Rather than waiting for only seconds or minutes, humans will wait days, weeks, months or even years for gains.  Is this a true cognitive divide?  The answer is yes and no.  In one sense, comparing the human and nonhuman experimental work is like comparing apples and oranges because the methodologies differ so greatly.  Repeated choices with all real rewards and time delays may yield different results from one-shot choices with hypothetical rewards and delays.  When tested in a manner similar to other animals, human subjects look similar to (or sometimes even more impulsive than!) chimpanzees.
    Thus, in certain situations humans show similar levels of patience as other primates.  Yet, clearly situations exist in which humans are much more patient than other animals.  It is difficult to imagine even chimpanzees investing in the future in a way comparable to depositing money into a retirement account 30-40 years before receiving a return.  Nonetheless, we know that, for instance, many species show impressive abilities for future planning.  Western scrub jays can plan for their breakfast in the morning.  Monkeys and apes, especially chimpanzees, strategically invest in relationships with group members to climb the political ladder of their dominance hierarchies.  Though these species lack the complex language and symbolic systems (such as money and legal contracts) that allow humans to work over vast temporal horizons, they do demonstrate a flexible means of dealing with the future.  Perhaps the recent surge in interest in animal patience will tell us whether long-term patience is a uniquely human virtue.

In short, put your money into an IRA instead of investing in a Monkey Bank. 


1.  Jeffrey R. Stevens and David W. Stephens, “Quick Guide: Patience,” Current Biology, Volume 18, Issue 1, 8 January 2008, Pages R11-R12.

They missed the whole point.  Human patience is a virtue, not a trait.  The fact that animals (and humans) may have instincts that work in a raw-biological context tells us nothing about the rationality and virtue behind human patience.  If it were merely instinctive, it would not require training and education and conscious choice.  If it were a biological trait, we would not see so many exceptions.
    Humans have the capacity for long-term gratification because we were made in the image of God.  That is the only explanation that makes sense for the ability to wait for payoff for decades, or a lifetime.  That is what explains parents denying their gratification for the sake of their children, so that they will be able to have opportunities they never had.  And that is what enables a soul to deny itself till death for a joy in a future life, following the example of Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
    We are animals, but we are not mere animals.  All theists recognize we are rational animals; it’s not like they believe humans float above the ground.  We have stomachs and sex organs and biological urges like the rest of biology.  That curious blend of body and soul is what makes our lives so interesting and challenging.  We were made for an unseen reality that can override our natural urges.  That is why we have need of patience.  That is why we are admonished to “consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (v.3).
    Having a biological propensity like the animals to weigh the costs and benefits of immediate vs delayed gratification does in no way diminish the unique capacity of humans for patience, nor does a listing of the misdeeds of impulsive or diseased individuals who act only according to their animal natures.  Indeed, try to imagine a chimpanzee investing in an IRA for 40 years.  Without a soul, with its rational capacity for language, choice and wisdom, such capabilities would be unexplainable.  Current biology demonstrates it.

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