The Psychology of Patience

An analog clock against a canary yellow background. The clock is mint green with white numerals. Its hour arm is pointed at 12, and its minute arm is pointed betwee 11 and 12. It has no arm to measure seconds. The image accompanies a blog post about the psychology of patience and personality.

Is patience a virtue? Well . . . according to a new theory, there’s a much more fruitful way to think about the psychology of patience.

Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, and Blake Loepp spoke with Kate Sweeny, PhD, professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, about the psychology of patience.

A social psychologist with more than 100 publications and 4,000 citations of her research, Kate is a Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) fellow and three-time faculty of the year award winner at UC Riverside.

Let’s dive into this conversation about different types of waiting, the benefits of worry, and a new theory of patience.

How to Wait Patiently

Waiting is a stressor. It can keep us in a state of unpleasant mental paralysis for a variety of reasons. “Can we build a toolbox for people for coping with waiting that we could teach people to use?” Kate said. “We’re getting there with some solutions, but nothing ameliorates entirely the experience of stressful waiting.”

Types of Waiting

The different types of waiting can be classified according to their outcomes—positive, negative, or neutral. Positive waiting is eager anticipation, such as a child waiting for birthday presents. Negative waiting is stressful dread, such as a patient waiting for a diagnosis. Neutral waiting is when the outcome is mundane and expected, such as waiting at a bus stop. Our responses to these situations require different kinds of patience, which can be further complicated by boredom, frustration, anxiety, or uncertainty.

Kate focuses her research about the psychology of patience on times when someone faces a big, stressful, looming unknown, such as an unpredictable and potentially life-changing situation. What are the steps to leveraging the psychology of patience under those circumstances?

Three Steps for Patient Waiting

Kate provided a three-part plan for addressing uncertainty with patience.

  1. Try to affect the outcome – If you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy, for example, you aren’t likely to have any control over the outcome. But if you’re worried about someday having breast cancer, you can behave differently today to improve your overall physical health. “Let your worry motivate that action,” whenever it may be possible, Kate said.
  2. Prepare for a negative outcome – Making plans for how you will respond to potential bad news can keep you from being caught off-guard. An example of this would be reviewing your insurance coverage or organization’s short-term leave policies during a health crisis. “Preparation provides reassurance that I’m getting a little bit of control back from the universe in a situation where I don’t have much,” Kate explained.
  3. Seek a flow state – As well as maintaining daily practices of health and wellness, Kate mentioned flow and mindfulness as more helpful types of distraction than binging television. “If you can really get in that zone, there’s nothing else your mind can do while you’re there. That’s the joy and the benefit of flow,” she said.

Research on the flow state suggests that the mind doesn’t wander during flow because it’s fully engaged in a single task. Similarly, mindfulness can encourage coexisting with uncertainty in a calm or peaceful way. “You can’t turn your worry off, but there are some ways you can combat it,” Kate said, particularly by engaging deeply in an activity.

Why Worrying Is Helpful

Evolutionary psychology theorizes that the emotions that most humans experience must provide more benefit than harm for our species overall. The fact that nearly everyone worries reflexively means that while worry may not be good in every instance for every person, it has some advantages for humanity. For one, it can bring our attention to potential threats. For another, it can spur us into action to prevent negative outcomes. Excessive, paralyzing, or demoralizing worry doesn’t tend to promote positive action. But when worry is functional, it can be quite helpful!

Worry and Religiosity

Kate’s research found that people who reported being more religious tended to worry more than those who were less religious. People who reported being more religious also tended to rely more on coping strategies that can be beneficial under the right circumstances. Of course, correlation is not causation. But religiosity tended to correlate with a coping strategy called preemptive benefit finding, or preemption.

Preemption means looking for the bright side to cope with bad news before the bad news arrives. “In the context of waiting, that means essentially lining up your silver linings in advance,” Kate said. This beneficial strategy means imagining the good that might come from a potentially negative situation or outcome—another tool for the patience toolkit.

The Psychology of Patience and Personality

Some personality characteristics, such as emotional stability, conscientiousness, and dispositional optimism, can be predictive of patience and worry. In preparing for an exam, students experience two types of waiting: the period of preparation leading up to the exam and the period of waiting following submission of the exam. In situations where the student still has a measure of control—that is, before the exam—personality has different effects on their approach to waiting. After the exam is submitted and the student no longer has control, personality seems to have less influence on how patiently the student copes with waiting.

This personality approach to the psychology of patience underlies a new theory of what patience is and its utility for handling uncertainty.

Is Patience a Virtue?

The famous adage, “Patience is a virtue,” originated in a poem from the 1300s—so it’s not exactly a new concept. Rather than a virtue, which implies morality, Kate proposes that patience is an emotional action.1 “When that emotion of impatience arises, we can manage it and regulate it through the process of patience,” she said. “That really takes patience quite out of the virtue realm and situates it in the nerdy research on emotion regulation. It’s not quite as poetic, but I think it’s much more practical.”

Patience is a specific, situational form of emotion regulation. When we feel the emotion of impatience, patience is the name of the self-regulation tools we apply to cope with that feeling. Whether that’s self-talk, deep breaths, or preemption, those subtle or explicit self-control strategies in the face of uncertain, stressful waiting are acts of patience.

“Patience may or may not be a virtue, but it is something we can learn to do better,” Kate concluded.

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 81 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!


  1. Sweeny, K. (2023, August 2). On (Im)Patience: A New Approach to an Old Virtue.