Three Reasons We Demand Real-Time Responses

One of the by-products of instant messaging technology like WhatsApp and Messenger is the particular strain of frustration you feel when you don’t get a quick response to a message you can see has been read. There’s probably a wonderful German word for it.

As communications technology has developed, so too has our expectation of a speedy reply. Many now expect an instant response from the people and companies we get in contact with.

So what drives our need to hear back immediately?

1. “I want it now!”

We naturally want instant reward. In the 1960s Stanford researchers conducted an experiment where they left a child alone in a room for 15 minutes with a marshmallow. They told them that if they didn’t eat it, they’d be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Most of the children (who were aged 4 and 5) eventually caved into temptation and ate the marshmallow.

The researchers followed-up on the participant’s progress over the next 40 years and found that those who grabbed that first sweet tended to opt for instant gratification in other areas of their lives.

We live in a world now where we don’t need to wait. We can fire up an app and see exactly what street our parcel delivery driver is on and how many deliveries they have left to complete before getting to us.
We can even see their photo and mobile number. We have access to vast amounts of information at our fingertips. We don’t have to wait to find out what we want to know.

2. We evolved to find quick and easy solutions

Evolution doesn’t mess around. If there’s a quick and easy way to do something most of us would take it.

Research from the University of London shows that we are hard-wired to take the path of least resistance, and – importantly – our brains will convince us that it’s the right path to take. When we have a hard task to do, we’ll distract ourselves with easier tasks. We’ll carve a big project into manageable chunks, making the project easier to do. (But then…watching that YouTube video of a cat greeting a returning soldier is easy and fun. So we could just watch that first…)

I know that if I have a choice between sitting on hold for 20 minutes while terrible elevator music plays over the phone, or simply posting to the brand on social media, I’ll pick social media. It’s easy, and closes the task down in my brain so I can get on with my day. (But see my first point – I expect an instant response.)

If I’m going to meet someone after work, I don’t plan my route there. I don’t need to. I just open Google Maps as I walk out of the door. I’m using the path of least resistance to take the quickest path to my destination. It’s a match made in heaven.

3. Our emotions demand it

When we’re emotional, we need to be heard.

Research by Princeton, Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities has found that the impulsive choices we make, and our need for the short-term reward, are governed by the emotional part of our brain.
Delayed-gratification – our drive for long-term goals – is ruled by logic and abstract-reasoning.

If my internet goes down, my first thought isn’t “well, my provider is generally very reliable, so there must be a good reason for it”. My first thought is “I’m angry about this, and why don’t I know when it’s coming back on?”

So, of course, I’ll take the path of least resistance, and message my internet provider, because my brain has evolved that way. And I’ll expect a response straight away, because I need instant gratification.

I worry that this is leading our expectations to become unrealistic. What if my internet goes down, my Google maps app doesn’t load, and I have a really complex task to finish? Is the pressure of this instant gratification setting us up to fail? It could lead us to be in a perpetual state of disappointment at best, anxiety at worst.

Perhaps the answer is to relearn patience, by practising mindfulness. To actively not reach for our mobile phones to check social media if we’re left alone for two minutes (despite the lovely, warm, hug-like dopamine hit it gives us).

And sometimes, the right answer isn’t the quickest answer. Sometimes we need to wait for a response, for it to be the best response.

After all, two marshmallows are always better than one.

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