A couple of months ago, a group of leading economists 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. This is a survey that includes representative population samples and asks about social and economic issues on an annual basis.
In the context of this 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 data from this study is particularly insightful, because the researchers chose 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, importantly, they chose a specific question format that they had shown would predict choices in experiments where people had to postpone real rewards.2
The following chart plots the country-level estimates of patience, where darker colors correspond to greater patience.
The units in this chart 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. Countries with higher levels of patience therefore represent those where people tend to be more willing to sacrifice a short-term reward for a larger reward in the longer-term.