Every day we are presented with choices that test our ability to delay gratification.
Viewed simplistically, these choices offer us two paths:
- Path 1: An easy immediate path, providing a dose of pleasure right away.
- Path 2: A more challenging path, delaying pleasure in favour of a bigger purpose.
This type of trade-off is everywhere.
We can choose to stay in and eat ice cream, or we can go out for that run and prioritise our long-term health. We can spend money on that new pair of shoes today, or we can save and invest that money for our future.
But here’s the thing: these trade-offs aren’t always so simple.
The obvious reality is that we couldn’t possibly delay gratification every time we were confronted by a trade-off between immediate pleasure and deferred pleasure. And even if we did, we would end up miserable – and probably alone. Conversely, if we did the opposite, embracing immediate pleasure at every turn, we would fare no better.
The net result is that our lives, our habits and our happiness are a result of the quality of our choices between the easy, immediately satisfying options and the challenging, long-term pursuits.
But research tells us that these things can also be a result of our ability to delay gratification. In fact, nearly 70 years of academic insights show that delayed gratification is a skill worth practising.
To fully get to grips with this, we must take a journey through seven decades of research, from the psychology of rats, to the famous marshmallow experiment, and then beyond to the new frontier of thinking on delayed gratification.
Too Much Pleasure Is a Bad Thing
That journey begins in 1954.
Neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner wanted to understand more about the neurological processes of craving and desire. Lab rats were wired up to machine, so that when they pressed a lever they would receive an electrical stimulation in the septal region of their brain (the pleasure centre).
What did the rats do? You might not be surprised to hear that when armed with a ticket to unlimited pleasure, they pressed the lever up to 4,000 times per hour. The rats evidently hadn’t mastered the art of delayed gratification.
But here’s where it gets sadder. As the rats began to receive continual stimulation, Olds and Milner found that they lost interest in everything else. The rats stopped eating and drinking. Transfixed by their pleasure above all else, within just a few days they died from thirst.
Follow-up studies have revealed that the rats’ demise would also be assured by the opposite treatment. When deprived of dopamine – a hormone that plays a key role in how we experience pleasure – rats become inactive and stop feeding.
So what does this tell us?
The conclusions of the first stop on this journey through the research aren’t revolutionary, but they confirm an important starting point: too much and too little immediate pleasure are bad things.
Too much pleasure, and we become desensitised and numbed to all the other important stuff that keeps us healthy. Too little pleasure, and we become inactive, depressed and apathetic.
In short, delaying some gratification literally keeps us alive. But as researchers homed in on the specifics in the following decades, it was revealed that the benefits of delayed gratification don’t stop there.
The Benefits of Delayed Gratification
In the late 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel led one of the most well-known studies in history: The Marshmallow Experiment.
The participants were hundreds of children, mainly between the ages of 4 and 5 years old.
In the experiments, children were presented with a classic delayed gratification dilemma: one treat now or two treats later.
These were the two options:
- Take an immediate small reward of one marshmallow or pretzel stick.
- Wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows or pretzel sticks.
Despite the entertaining and agonising wait for the children that followed, the interesting insights arrived years later.
In a series of follow-up studies, Walter Mischel began to find unexpected correlations between the children’s choices all those years ago and their later success in life. Those that were able to wait longer tended to have higher SAT scores, cope better with stress, have a lower likelihood of obesity, display better social skills, and perform better on a range of other life measures.
Over 40 years of follow-up studies showed the same type of result time and time again. Delayed gratification in the experiments correlated with indicators of success.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our capacity to choose the disciplined, long-term approach over the immediately satisfying sets us up for future success.
I don’t need to tell you that delaying gratification can mean studying harder, eating better, saving and investing more for our futures, working out harder, sticking at habits, and waiting for two marshmallows instead of one. Delayed gratification is, by definition, usually about taking a reliable bet on our future.
The question, then, turns to whether we can develop an ability to delay gratification, or whether a child that takes their immediate marshmallow is nailed to their path.
Our Environment and Delayed Gratification
In 2012, researchers from the University of Rochester took a unique approach to addressing that question. Their study replicated the conditions of the marshmallow experiment, but with one important change. The children were assigned to two conditions: a reliable condition and an unreliable condition.
In the reliable condition, a researcher first delivered on a promise, bringing a selection of additional crayons for the children to play with. In the unreliable condition, the researcher promised additional crayons but then returned to say they didn’t have any.
When the children were subsequently put through the marshmallow experiment, they found that those exposed to the reliable condition were far more likely to delay gratification than those exposed to the unreliable condition.
Why does this matter? Because it proves that delayed gratification can be influenced by our environment.
The punchline of the study is this: delaying gratification is not just a question of innate ability; it is a result of our environment and our beliefs about those environments.
That core insight offers some important lessons about how we can train ourselves to delay gratification.
How to Delay Gratification
#1: Establish reliable future rewards. The University of Rochester study shows that when we make future rewards reliable, we are much more likely to delay gratification in favour of some bigger future prize. By promising ourselves small regular rewards, we can reinforce this sense of environmental reliability.
#2: Set up a social contract. Recent research published in Psychological Science in January 2020 also cleverly reworked the marshmallow experiment. Children’s outcomes were interdependently linked with another child, and both children were only rewarded if both delayed gratification. The paired children performed substantially better than children on the traditional test. Translating these results to adult life, it provides weight to the case for finding a partner keen on the same objective and relying on each other to delay gratification.
#3: Use the power of streaks. The mere act of showing up each day makes not showing up all the more uncomfortable. Breaking a streak for immediate satisfaction can become unbearable. Long streaks are one of the fuels that stop us from falling back on old habits.
#4: Automate delayed gratification. Using default choices can eliminate the dilemma entirely. When we set up an automated decision to delay gratification (e.g. saving a fixed amount every month) we are significantly less likely to change our minds.
#5: Practice gratitude. It may sound an unlikely connection, but research has found that expressing gratitude may increase financial patience. Participants were presented a scaled choice between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days. Those exposed to a condition where they wrote about an event that made them feel grateful were willing to wait longer for a higher reward. A simple way to implement gratitude techniques is to write a short weekly list of the things you are grateful for. (More on gratitude here.)
Some Final Thoughts
Our journey through the research ends there, but it’s worth reflecting on an important point.
It’s easy to dismiss the idea of delaying gratification as two fingers to living in the moment. But that misses the point.
This article isn’t advocating a life deprived of pleasure. It’s advocating a life of making choices that give us purpose as well as pleasure. Those choices invariably require us to reject some immediate pleasures and take the harder, more rewarding route in the long term.
The research tells us that the latter offers considerable comparative benefits. And thankfully, we can tailor our environments to take advantage of them.
The next time you confront a legitimate dilemma between immediate pleasure and a longer-term pursuit, give those benefits the informed attention they deserve.
For related reading on delayed gratification, I recommend The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel, Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, and Grit by Angela Duckworth.