Delay of Gratification

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After five years, Mark was almost done. He dreamed of graduation, completing school, and moving forward. He slacked off during his final year but was confident that high grades on the finals would compensate for his low marks. The day before his most important exam, Mark attended an afternoon game with his friends. He reasoned that “the game would get his mind off the material and still leave plenty of time for studying.” Several beers later, the evening gently faded into morning. Mark failed his exam. His dreams stalled, stupidly exchanged for a few beers and a day with friends. He failed to delay his gratification for pleasurable but future destroying activity.

Mark’s failure to prioritize graduation over entertainment was costly. He sacrificed the future for a frolic of amusement. As illogical as Mark’s behavior seems, failure to delay gratification is common. Immediate gratification has haunted people throughout history.

Nearly two millenniums ago, the poet Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD) mourned, “I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong” (2004).

We fail, destroying futures in exchange for insignificant enjoyments. We light a cigarette after committing to abstain, we aimlessly surf the internet instead of exercise, and we sacrifice hours of productivity to gaming instead of sleeping or other personal development pursuits. Sadly, we neglect our bodies, minds, and relationships, marching to pleasurable impulses at great cost to futures.

Key Definition

​Delaying gratification is refraining from impulsive actions with immediate rewards in exchange behaviors that offer more favorable rewards later.

Goal pursuit is a hallmark of humanity. Failure to achieve goals is also human. We dream grand things but falter during the battle between present and future. The actions to achieve our goals typically are not difficult. We just need to do them. Perhaps, the sense of ease lulls us into security, failing to engage necessary attention to stay motivated. We often postpone action not because of difficulty but because failure doesn’t seem eminent.

The act of delaying gratification isn’t the goal, the value of delaying is context dependent. The future isn’t more important than then present. The present is the stage that the happiness dances on. Attention to the future, however, provides groundwork for all the future presents. Harvard professor and best selling author, Tal Ben-Shahar wrote, “In order to be happy, having meaning in life is not enough. We need the experience of meaning and the experience of positive emotions; we need present and future benefits.” (2007, p. 43).

​”​From avoiding a slice of chocolate cake when we are trying to lose weight to staying home to study instead of going out to a party with friends, the ability to delay gratification can mean the difference between achieving our goals or not.”

~Kendra Cherry  |  verywellmind

What Is Delayed Gratification and How Do You Pass the Marshmallow Test?

Behavior expert and author of Happiness by Design Paul Dolan defines happiness through experiences of both pleasure and purpose (2015, location 539). Delaying gratification is a skill to be used judiciously, blending present moment pleasures with purposeful pursuits. Sometimes we enjoy an amusement; other times we forego a pleasure for acts that notably enhance our future.

Many people live in constant anxiety, driven to achieve, they strangle enjoyment from their lives, seeing pleasurable pursuits as a lazy squandering of time and talent. Others act in complete ignorance to the future, disregarding consequences, blindly indulging now, and suffering later. Delay of gratification, often touted as a key to success, is not always the best choice. The ability to delay gratification, however, is necessary to routinely harness the moment for a greater harvest later.

​Walter Mischel and his colleague explain, “Excessive postponing gratification can become a stifling, joyless choice, but an absence of will leaves people victims of their own biographies. Often the choice to delay or not is difficult and effortful, yet in the absence of the competencies needed to sustain delay and to exercise the will when there is a wish to do so, the choice itself is lost” (Mischel & Ayduk, 2010, location 3087).

The Marshmallow Study

​Walter Mischel developed the “marshmallow test” to study postponement of gratification in children. The experimenter presents a child with a marshmallow, explaining to the child that he or she can eat the marshmallow after the experimenter leaves the room or they can wait until the experimenter returns. The child is told, if they wait, they will be given a second marshmallow.

Approximately a third of the children lasted the fifteen minutes. (Sapolski, 2018, location 3023). The marshmallow study provides a simple example of delayed gratification—one now or two later. Mischel, however, took the experiment further. He tracked the children into their adulthoods, comparing the children who waited to those that immediately gratified. The seemingly insignificant difference in childhood behavior correlated to much larger differences in adult development.

Mischel found that the children who waited averaged higher scores on SAT exams and had more social success. Forty years later, the patient children “excelled at frontal function, had more PFC (prefrontal cortex) activation during frontal task, and lower BMIs (body mass indexes)” (location 3041).

Growing up in a strict religious environment, I adopted the protestant work mentality. I saw goal pursuit as an act of will power. Failure to achieve, I believed, was weakness. So, when I failed, as I often did, I perceived myself as weak. Repeated failure mangled my fragile teenage self-image.

Oh, the faulty imaginations of youth, both beautiful and ugly. I wonder if I would have waited for the second marshmallow. Successfully achieving goals is a hallmark of success. However, we develop with age. A failure at the marshmallow experiment doesn’t condemn children to fail later in life. We remarkably can change trajectories.

Low Frustration Tolerance

​Albert Ellis taught that some people have low frustration tolerance. He saw the inability to process small injustices and challenges as a learned behavior. Whether a child throws a crayon in anger or an adult lights one up to relieve stress, low frustration tolerance is often at work—an immediate response to release unbearable stress. Many actions that relieve the bubbling pressure have hidden costs. A habitual act to relieve stress has an immediate reward. However, emotions sometimes lead us askew, placing preferred value on the moment, neglecting the future.

For Mark, going to the ballgame and enjoying the camaraderie of his friends was a release, perhaps, avoiding, or self-sabotaging a test he unconsciously feared. Many factors contribute to and blur our choices.

​Any particular moment is a culmination of preceding moments, likely, other procrastinations were behind Mark’s dire situations, forcing extra preparation for the exams. He failed to meet the moment, crumbling before the challenge, unable to correct his self-destructive trajectory. He chose to further delay worthy dreams.

​”​Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.”

~James Clear

​Like Ovid, perhaps, Mark saw the right way but chose the wrong; or, maybe, the idea of the right way was absent from Marks’ awareness when he was confronted with this life changing choice.

How do we do it? How do we revise the trajectories? Early theories suggested that will power is like a muscle that must be strengthened. The theory proposes that we strengthen willpower through acts requiring willpower, slowly improving our ability to delay and regulate impulses.

Is Delay of Gratification Willpower or Skill?

More recent studies challenge the “muscle” theory, suggesting self-regulation is more about technique than strength. In a recent article, Sabine Doebel argues that willpower is not domain specific, therefore there is no correlate to a muscle to strengthen. Executive functions, such as delay of gratification, underlie “self-regulatory and complex goal-directed behaviors.” These functions are often depicted as prefrontal cortex operations.

The muscle theory implies that practice strengthens the involved domains, such as the prefrontal cortex. Doebel writes, “there are empirical and conceptual reasons to doubt that executive functions can be reduced to a few component processes” (2020, p. 944). Doebel is not suggesting certain brain regions aren’t involved. MRI images confirm that the frontal cortex is engaged when executive functions are deployed.

New Empirical Findings on Delayed Gratification

​However, empirical evidence draws suspicion on the component theory. New studies discovered that delaying gratification in lab exercises doesn’t improve performance in other domains. You can teach a child how to wait for a second marshmallow but mastering the marshmallow test doesn’t improve life choices. A component isn’t being strengthened but a skill is being taught. Unless the child can learn to apply the attentional skills from the marshmallow test across multiple domains, the lab success won’t have far reaching benefits.

Steve Southwick and Dennis Charney wrote, “the ability to delay gratification is an essential skill for success in life” (2018, location 8207). Delay of gratification is a skill. Doebel agrees. “We ought to think of it as the development of skills in using control in service of specific goals” (2020, p. 945).

​”​Knowing how to delay pleasure in an effort to serve a more important and more gratifying goal makes all the difference in achieving that goal.”

~Kelly Miller  |  Positive Psychology

“Successful self-regulation allows people to subordinate short-term temptations to long term goals, to trade the pleasure of immediate gratification for delayed rewards, and to tolerate the frustration that can be associated with persisting in the face of challenges…” (Bauer & Baumeister, 2010, location 2097). The goal of turning “hopeful wishing into effective willing” Bauer and Baumeister explain is achieved “by planning out and rehearsing…implementation intentions” (location 2870-2877).

Baumeister, Heatherton, and Tice explain in their comprehensive book Losing Control that, “there is more than one thing going on inside a human being at any given time. Multiple processes operate in parallel… Self-regulation,” they continue, “is a matter of one process overriding another…” (1995, p. 7). Doebel describes this as “higher cognitive processes…engage to coordinate other (lower) cognitive processes…” (2020, p. 942).

Top -down Processing and Delay of Gratification

Many scientists refer to this as top-down processing—cortex cognitive processes overriding impulse directives.

Daniel Goleman describes emotional intelligence as the ability “to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification, to regulate one’s mood and keep distress from swamping the ability to think, to empathize and hope” (2005, location 847). He aptly describes this as “marshaling emotions in the service of a goal” (location 1035).

Goleman, Baumeister, Mischel and Doebel all agree that self-regulation isn’t a matter of strength, but a skilled response to impulsive and frustrating feelings.  Success in the face of temptation isn’t achieved through overpowering the impulse with an indomitable will, but intelligently maneuvering through the twists and turns, utilizing learned techniques of distraction and reappraisal.

The “indomitable will” doesn’t exist. Humans have biological limitations. We deplete cognitive energy and succumb to pressure. Science refers to this as ego depletion.  Emotionally intelligent people conserve cognitive resources through integration of habits.  They prepare for demands with accurate assessment and predictions. They mobilize resources to keep life demands within their limits.

Hot and Cold Motivational Systems

The children that delayed gratification in Mischel’s marshmallow studies didn’t have better biology but employed better techniques. They skillfully used attention to limit the temptation. Children that delayed eating the marshmallow often relied on different cognitive strategies than those that consumed.

Manipulation of attention appears important. Several researchers hypothesize that successful delay of gratification is skillful use of motivational hot and cold systems. The hot system is a ‘go’ system—reflexive and emotional. The cold system is a ‘know’ system—reflective and cognitive.

They skillfully used attention to limit the temptation.

~T. Franklin Murphy

Hot Buttons

​Behaviors that push the hot buttons—sex, consumption, fear—activate the human ‘go’ system. Children that focused on the taste of the marshmallow typically didn’t hold on until the researcher returned. Consequently, they activated their ‘go’ system. However, the other children, the ones who waited, utilized a variety of techniques. Some refused to look at the marshmallow. Others engaged in alternate activities, directing attention away from the yummy treat.

Interestingly, some children reappraised the marshmallow, using their imagination, using the marshmallow as a wheel or toy. The reappraisal softened the ‘go’ appeal to consume, correlating with longer resistance.

“Delaying gratification today for a better future tomorrow is so central to so many of our cultural and religious institutions precisely because it’s so hard to do. We need the constant reminders—not to mention the occasional kick in the ass—in order to overcome our instinctive laziness.”

~Mark Manson  |  Medium

These thoughtful children are examples, giving wisdom for us struggling adults. Many of life’s enjoyments trigger got-to-have-it-now impulses. Thoughts of studying complex test material tires the brain while carefree enjoyment relieves the weighty stress.

Perhaps, Mark would have been wiser if he redirected his attention, contemplating the impact instead of the pleasure, considering possible temptations and downfalls, reappraising the outing as dangerous instead of relaxing. The ‘go’ system can be used to our advantage when the ‘go’ is in line with our goal.

​Life has many delicious rewards. Mark’s reflections could have included contemplation of a stress free summer once his tests were complete. We succeed when we adopt techniques of focusing attention that allow for temporary delay of gratification when delays are necessary to achieve healthy goals. Other times no delay is needed. We can enjoy the moment, indulge in impulses, and eat that sweet, sugary marshmallow without guilt.

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Bauer, I. M.; Baumeister, R. F. (2010) Chapter Four: Self-Regulatory Strength. In Editor K.D. Vohs, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation, Third Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications Third Edition. The Guilford Press.

Baumeister, R. F.; Heatherton, T.F.; Tice, D.M. (1995) Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. Academic Press; 1st Edition.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2007) Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Education; 1st Edition.

Doebel, S. (2020). Rethinking Executive Function and Its Development. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(4), 942-956.

Dolan, P. (2015) Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Plume; Illustrated Edition.

Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 10th Anniversary Edition.

Mischel, W.; Ayduk, O. (2010) CHAPTER 5 Willpower in a Cognitive Affective Processing System The Dynamics of Delay of Gratification. In Editor K.D. Vohs, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation, Second Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. The Guilford Press.

Ovid (2004). Metamorphoses.

Sapolski, R. M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated Edition.

Southwick, S. M. & Charney, D. S. (2018) Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press; 2nd Edition.

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