What is Delayed Gratification and How to Pass the Marshmallow Test?

delayed gratificationSaving for your dream home? Trying to fit into those skinny jeans? Want a lasting, loving relationship?

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.

The ability to self-regulate will directly impact the outcomes of all of those future plans. In a culture surrounded by the messaging that you can lose the discomfort right now, the ability to wait for a long term reward is less attractive.

Read on to know why delayed gratification is a muscle we can all grow to serve our future selves. Sometimes discomfort is the more beneficial choice.

What is Delayed Gratification?

In the past, the concepts of delayed gratification, self-control, and self-regulation have been used interchangeably or inconsistently. The ability to delay the impulse for an immediate reward to receive a more favorable reward at a later time is a standard definition of delayed gratification. Studies have shown that the ability to delay reward is present in highly successful people.

With further investigation, since 2007, the umbrella term ‘self-regulation’ has beneath it the construct of self-control. Beneath self-control is a continuum of separate constructs that include impulse control and ego resiliency (Funder & Block, 1989). Gratification delay holds the space between these two constructs in the continuum.

Initial theories on delayed gratification focused on the construct as a personality trait and predictor or future success. Further investigations have questioned the adaptive nature of the construct. Researchers have examined whether it is always beneficial to delay gratification, in turn, denying pleasure as well.

Science has theorized that delay of gratification improves over a lifespan (Mischel, 2010). Parents will recognize this when a toddler throws a fit after having to wait 5 minutes for a cookie. Our physical bodies recognize pleasure as serving us in survival. Food, sleep, water, and sex all provide the means to survive and pass on our genetic material. Intuitively, we would have the natural impulse to receive these things as pleasurable.

Within self-control and self-regulation theory (Baumeister, 2007), the following are the five domains of gratification delay:

  1. food
  2. physical pleasures
  3. social interactions
  4. money
  5. achievement

It is interesting to note that discounting delay remains strong throughout the lifespan (Green, 1994); however, no goal is automatically assured. Delaying gratification poses a risk in that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Receiving $100 today, therefore, is more desirable than gaining $500 in 3 years, when that 3-year mark may not ever be reached.

 

Examples of Delayed Gratification

junk food opposes delayed gratificationThe ability to exert “willpower” and delay the attainment of pleasure reveals certain types of inhibitory behavior. Here are a few ways someone might delay gratification in the five domains:

 

1. Food

With 37.7% of Americans suffering from obesity and chronic diseases, delayed gratification, and the implications of fast food culture are of utmost concern (Shuval, 2016). The American Cancer Society has linked time constraints and the lack of forward-thinking to the decrease of healthy, home-prepared food intake.

It requires considerable effort to override the instant gratification and satiating, low-nutrient food that is readily available in favor of better overall health.

Peak performance takes an extreme delay of gratification. Someone who wants to get healthy has to view themselves in a personal peak state instead of seeing themselves as someone who might be featured on the cover of a magazine.

Healthy food intake requires eating a smaller slice of cake, once in a while, instead of ingesting the whole cake. Food habits add up quickly, and a healthy lifestyle will always serve someone better than a quick fix or fad diet.

 

2. Physical pleasures

Rates of addiction are soaring. Overcoming addiction takes increased levels of delayed gratification and vast improvements in self-awareness. A strong scientific example was done with the cessation of smoking (Mueller, 2009).

The experiment reinforced abstinence with increasing, consistent, and decreasing monetary rewards. The most reinforcing results were the increasing monetary rewards, showing that abstinence consistently and incrementally reinforced will produce more significant results in delayed gratification.

 

3. Social interactions

As we know, adolescent brains are growing more rapidly in the emotional portion than the logical portion. Delaying the gratification of social engagement in favor of long term academic goals is a good example.

There is a great deal of motivation derivation involved in this type of impulse control, however (Bembenutty, 2007). Let’s face it, a night out at a party is desirable and pleasurable for most adolescents. Overriding the impulse to be socially included, in favor of studying for an exam is the ultimate college test.

 

4. Financial well being

With rapidly deliverable goods consistently in our periphery, it can prove challenging to save money for retirement. Creating the retirement of your dreams will require delayed gratification.

If the desire is to downsize and live in an RV to see all of the National Parks, one needs to be hyper-vigilant in foregoing the garments and fun shoes that pop up in our social media feeds. Making the salient goal delicious and dreamy is the key function used to overriding the impulses.

 

5. Achievement

Work ethic varies from person to person. High achievers choose to work for long-term goals consistently. Avoiding distraction, staying self-motivated, and having a strong connection with why the goal is important are key examples of delaying gratification in favor of long term achievement.

 

Why is Delayed Gratification So Important?

Instant gratification is a habit. Learning how to delay the impulse for immediate pleasure in favor of long-term satisfaction is a skill required for incremental and long-term growth. Fully recognizing and being aware of the impulse gives way to higher goal attainment and the formation of new neural pathways through neuroplasticity and new habit formation.

Successful goal attainment in any area will require the recognition of a conscious choice. A college kid may have to choose between attending a fun party in favor of studying for the following day’s exam. While the party may be epic, choosing it over the successful completion of an important college course would be pleasure over patience.

The ability to override the impulse to seek instant pleasure needs to be nurtured in children. They must learn that impulses pass, but long term goals will continue to be distant without real-time choice. Delaying gratification in certain areas allows for that choice to be favorable and worthy of growth.

Rates of obesity, risky sexual behaviors, and substance misuse are skyrocketing. This brings into question the ability to tap into the use of delayed gratification. Measuring the ability has had a slow journey, but recent advances have revealed hope for application in public health.

With far-reaching implications of the inability to forego impulses in adulthood, the advancement of measurement capabilities, (Hoerger, 2011) offers new insight into interventions. Increased understanding of demographics in delayed gratification indicators is incredibly important in future research. The more we know about the “how” of self-regulation, the better it can be utilized as a means for growth in children and adults.

Prospect imagery is a way to induce a willingness to delay gratification (Cheng, 2011). Through priming, research has shown that we don’t need a lifespan to improve our mindset toward future focus. To improve overall well being in the five domains of self-regulation, helping someone re-emphasize their future self enables improvement in motivation and delayed gratification abilities in behavior, moving someone toward their future self.

 

Delayed Gratification in Relationships

delayed gratification relationshipsDivorce rates may be an indicator of problems in delayed gratification.

Impulsivity in communication, overuse of gratification delay concerning sexual behavior, and far-reaching implications in ego depletion have lasting effects on marriages. Mature relationships effectively utilize delayed gratification in different ways.

Trust is a key component in delayed gratification (Michaelson, 2013), and it is foundational in relationships. When they say communication is key in relationships, they really mean effective communication is vital. Trust is a big part of that communication.

Withholding the impulse to react in anger to something your partner has done or said, is vital. Trusting that your partner will hear what you have to say and actively listen when communicating in a calm state is a building block for a long-lasting relationship.

Technology has begun to affect communication in relationships. Due to the instant gratification available in texting versus actively listening, society has started to have trouble with constructive communication.

Being mindful of favoring one’s use of such devices in close proximity to loved ones has an impact on in-person communication abilities. While it is wonderful to connect via text, when face to face, it is more impactful to connect by putting down the device.

We are sexual beings, and delaying gratification in sexual behavior is not intellectually simple, even for adults. Responsible sexual behavior requires delayed gratification abilities that are like a dial. Relationships mature over time, and with that maturity comes changes in sexual activity.

Marriages suffer when too much gratification delay is adopted. Giving into pleasurable impulse with a spouse is a benefit to marital bliss. Turning the dial up or down in favor of intimacy is a gateway to healthier relationships.

Healthy marriages have healthy sex lives. It is even recommended to plan “sex dates” into a couple’s schedule. With Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work in The How of Happiness, increasing positive emotion with delayed gratification and variety in sexual behavior is a great example. That intimate, physical connection is important.

 

The Famous Marshmallow Study

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, research by Walter Mischel gave insight into the role that self-control and delayed gratification played on future success. A selected group of children from the Stanford University community was the initial group being tested. The children in the initial experiments were preschool age.

These children were placed in a room with marshmallows in front of them. The researcher then informed the children that he/she would leave the room, and the kids were given two choices. They were told that they would receive more marshmallows if they could wait until the experimenter returned.

If they could not wait, they were instructed to ring a bell for the researcher to then return, but they would not receive additional marshmallows.

In these experiments, the children displayed all kinds of delay behavior. These behaviors showed that they were distracting themselves from the marshmallow to wait for more marshmallows after the researcher returned. The number of seconds a child could delay in consuming the marshmallow was recorded.

Analysis of the results of this original experiment developed into the foundational theory in self-control. In a longitudinal study of the experiment’s participants, it was reported that children who exhibit the ability to delay gratification effectively showed higher levels of academic achievement at age 15. The number of seconds a 4-year-old could delay consuming that delicious marshmallow predicted success in their futures.

The initial participants were followed over their lifetimes. Extensive research using these measures has shown that the ability to delay gratification during childhood is associated later in life with a lower tendency toward frustration and aggression, better school and standardized test score performance, and greater social responsibility and social competence in adolescence (Mischel et al., 1972, 1989).

The research from these experiments has clarified the mental and physical mechanisms that lead to improved self-control behavior. Children who display more capabilities in delay choice show higher rates of self-reliance, self-efficacy, and self-confidence. The impact of this study is far-reaching.

The creation of the two-stage process theory of delayed gratification (Mischel,1974) was then forged. The first stage focuses on the determinants of the choice to delay. The second focuses on the factors that facilitate delay behavior. For instance, whether or not rewards are visible or present and cognitive representations that might distract a person from instant gratification behaviors.

Mischel’s research has revealed some of the key cognitive skills that lead to success. There are strategies, plans, and mindsets that enable self-control and improvement in self-regulation. When these skills are identified and taught at an early age, children are given lifelong tools for success.

The Hot/Cool System was later developed as well (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Described in detail are the two systems by which reactions are processed. The hot system is the emotional “go” system. The cool system is the emotionally neutral, logical thinking “know” system. Both are necessary for human choice. Managing how they are balanced is critical for success.

His research even helped Dr. Mischel with the personal cessation of smoking. He had a long term nicotine habit. His motivation to stop came when he witnessed the pain of a man receiving treatment for lung cancer. Motivation is a key factor in the successful delay of gratification.

Brought into question in future replication of this original study were environmental and socioeconomic factors and the multidimensionality of the construct. The research leads to advances in self-regulation theory and the theory that gratification delay is a constructive process that could be altered throughout a lifespan. Further investigation into theories in human motivation is interconnected with gratification delay abilities.

 

5 Best Books to Read

The Marshmallow Test1. The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success

The most well-known book on delayed gratification was written by the original researcher Walter Mischel. The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success, outlines the research and the paradigm for delayed gratification that was created from that research.

From the master of self-control, a description of how to master and apply it to everyday life is offered.

Available from Amazon.

 

Willpower2. Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength

Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength was written by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. This literature highlights the research done on self-regulation.

The concept that self-control and self-regulation, like a muscle, is highlighted and offered as a way of improving well being and success.

Available from Amazon.

 

The Science of Self-Discipline3. The Science of Self-Discipline

Peter Hollins wrote The Science of Self-Discipline as a road map to success. This bestselling author studied psychological concepts in self-control and interpreted them into actionable steps for high achievement.

The book outlines steps to overcoming impulses and mastering self-discipline.

Available from Amazon.

 

Mastery4. Mastery

A unique and compelling book by Robert Greene called Mastery, examines the lives of historical masters. Through this analysis, revelations in the concept of genius and psychological implications are revealed.

By studying masters in their fields, readers can model their behaviors to improve their achievement.

Available from Amazon.

 

Impulsivity5. Impulsivity

Impulsivity by Madden and Bickel is the collection of concepts in varying modalities. This book is based on neuroscience and behavior theory.

It is beneficial for practitioners interested in further science from the field.

Available from Amazon.

 

Delayed Gratification and Success

We live in a world that is fraught with distractions. Everywhere we look, there is a source of instant gratification that can be delivered to our doorstep the very next day. Highly successful people are that way because of their ability to consciously hold off on immediate pleasure with motivation to reach an autonomously set long term goal.

It is important to note that the ability to delay impulses alone is not a determining factor in finding success. There is research that supports the theory that personal motivation is an additional and significant determinant of success (Bembenutty, 2008). This is of particular interest when determining goal attainment in academics.

Young children learn from failure, but if a child develops failure-avoidant behavior (Crandall, 1960), they may never fully achieve their potential. Academic achievement and self-determination theory go hand in hand. As children develop, a guiding hand showing them that failure is the best place to learn is a vital piece of the success puzzle.

The delay of gratification in young children does rely heavily on the reliability of their environment (Kidd, 2013). Children who have consistently experienced broken promises from adults will have fewer delay capabilities. Consistent reward delivery and the cognitive connection between behavior and salient reward is of utmost importance.

An interesting area of study of sociopolitical motivation and its impact on delay of gratification (Ward, 1989) revealed a more multidimensional approach to the concept of delay of gratification. Socioeconomic considerations must be examined when discussing the topic. Delay choice is influenced by environment and personal motivation.

Knowing that priming aids children in developing a delay choice preference brings to mind the work of Carol Dweck and growth mindset. Successful people aren’t born with the tendency to delay gratification; they develop the tools used to focus on salient long term goals. Applying priming and growth mindset with adults who are pursuing success can be life-changing.

Each time a human practices delay choice, the ability to repeat that behavior improves. Mindful awareness of choice is critical in creating an opportunity for this growth in choosing a distant goal over reward in the present. Considering environmental and motivational factors carefully, this awareness can be rewarded in successful futures.

Choosing a distant goal is hard work. Successful people are so deeply rooted in attaining that distant goal that immediate reward, not attached to that goal, becomes irrelevant. Consistent daily habitual choice builds up to long term success.

 

A Take-Home Message

If everyone were masters at delayed gratification, our environment would not be saturated with “quick” solutions to everything under the sun. Our culture demands that successful humans rise above the constant distraction to self-motivate and delay personal gratification in favor of distal goals. “YOLO” became popular for a reason. It just isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to achieve goals that take time and effort.

We are not guaranteed a tomorrow. However, a balance between our cravings for instantaneous rewards and our desire to create longevity in career, relationships, and health is difficult to achieve. Our entire lives require that we weigh the choices of “okay right now” vs. “bigger better later.” As adults, it takes a concerted effort to override the environment to create our thriving personal worlds.

The underlying question in reaching success has been and will continue to be, “How bad do you want it?

 

 

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About the Author

Kelly Miller is a graduate of the Flourishing Center’s CAPP program and published author of Jane's Worry Elephant. She is currently the owner of A Brighter Purpose, LLC, a provider in positive psychology coaching services. When she isn’t gleefully helping humans move toward flourishing, she enjoys National Park hikes and spending quality time with her adventurous family.

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