A group of leading economists recently published a research paper studying cross-country differences in character traits like patience, risk aversion, reciprocity, altruism, and trust.1 They gathered data by conducting surveys with 80,000 people across 76 countries within the framework of the 2012 Gallup World Poll. The surveys included representative population samples and asked about social and economic issues on an annual basis.
In the study, ‘patience’ was defined as willingness to give up something that is beneficial for you today in order to benefit more from that in the future. To measure this, the researchers combined responses to quantitative questions (e.g. participants had to decide whether to receive a payment today or a larger payment in 12 months) as well as qualitative questions (e.g. participant had to answer “how willing are you to give up something that is beneficial for you today in order to benefit more from that in the future?”).
The study used survey questions that predicted ‘incentivised revealed preferences’. This means that to measure patience, for example, the researchers asked participants about their willingness to postpone a hypothetical reward; but they asked using questions and wording that they had tested before in a lab setting, showing they could predict choices in experiments where people had to postpone real rewards.2
The chart here plots the country-level estimates of patience from this study. Darker colors correspond to greater patience. The units are standard deviations from the global distribution, where 0 is the average. This means positive values reflect more patience than the world average; and negative values reflect less patience than the world average.
As we can see, the country where people tend to be most patient is Sweden (followed by the Netherlands and the US). And the country where people tend to be least patient is Nicaragua (followed by Rwanda and Georgia).
In the paper the authors point out: “Populations of European ancestry tend to be more patient than the world mean. Indeed, all of the 10 most patient countries in the world are either located in the neo-European, English-speaking world, or else in Western Europe, with the Scandinavian countries exhibiting particularly high levels of patience.”
Cross-country differences in patience matter because important decisions in life often depend on the timing of rewards. In particular, any decision that involves trading off a cost now in order to get a benefit in the future, requires thinking about how much we should discount the future.