Changing reward sensitivity and the ability to delay gratification

This study aims to determine whether it is possible to change reward sensitivity using a psychological training, thereby potentially influencing the ability to delay immediately rewarding activities in favor of activities that serve our long-term goals (i.e., delayed gratification). This is of high clinical relevance, as reduced reward sensitivity and the impaired ability to delay gratifications represent a transdiagnostic risk factor. Individuals with substance use disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or binge-eating disorder often choose immediate rewards that might jeopardize their long-term goals. In contrast, major depressive disorder is characterized by reduced reward sensitivity and an impaired ability to act according to current needs. It has been proposed that both behavioral patterns relate to an imbalance between executive control functions and the brain's reward system. Thus, impairments to delay gratification can result from a weak executive system or a hyperactive reward system. Similarly, a hyperactive executive system and a hyporesponsive reward system could reduce reward sensitivity and increase immediate gratification delays. In a first step, we investigated whether it is possible to increase reward sensitivity via computerized mental imagery training.

The results of this pilot study were promising and are published here:
Linke, J., Wessa, M. (2017) Mental imagery training increases wanting of rewards and reward sensitivity and reduces depressive symptoms. Behavior Therapy. 48 (5): 695 – 706.

Duration of study:
Oktober 2014 – April 2015

Dr. Julia Linke,
Prof. Dr. Michèle Wessa (principal investigator),
M.Sc. Jonas Neubert,
B.Sc. Jana Eymann