Learn about the research behind delayed gratification.
We all experience the dilemma of whether we should yield to or resist temptation from time to time. For some, it might be the urge to buy a newly released electronic device instead of waiting for a few months, when its price tag will probably be lower. For others, it might be resisting the gooey sweetness of a thick slice of an apple pie at the family holiday dinner while trying to lose a few pounds. Contemplating whether we should or shouldn’t do something may become frustrating, especially if we give in to our desires and consequently feel remorse.
Delayed gratification is a person’s ability to resist an immediate reward so that they can get a more valuable future reward. In this case, a reward can be defined as anything that brings comfort or pleasure.
Many people equate delayed gratification with self-control or willpower, as it involves resisting temptations. Delayed gratification indeed requires self-control, yet it also involves a future goal or expectation with a more valuable reward than what we’d get if we gave in to the temptation. Therefore, delayed gratification necessitates imagining oneself in the future. Hence, the more distant or vague the future is, the harder it becomes to resist an immediately available reward for something better that may or may not come true.
So, given the uncertainty of the future, why should we practice delayed gratification? The answer is simple: this ability can help us achieve our long-term goals and increase our well-being. Indeed, people with this ability tend to not only be more cognitively and socially competent but also more successful in the long run (Mischel, Shoda & Rodriguez, 1989).
The pleasure principle and reality principle
For psychologists, delayed gratification is nothing new. Freud and other psychoanalysts have explained the ability to give in to or delay pleasure with the pleasure principle and reality principle. More specifically, the pleasure principle is an individual’s drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain to fulfill their physiological and psychological needs (Tester, 2009). On the other hand, the reality principle is the individual’s ability to assess the reality of their external environment to guide their behavior (Tester, 2009). Moreover, Freud also proposed that the pleasure principle is most active in early life and replaced by the reality principle over time (Tester, 2009).
The critical difference between the pleasure and reality principles is that the former governs immediate pleasures, whereas the latter includes future-oriented thinking. In other words, the pleasure principle describes instant gratification, and the reality principle reflects the characteristics of delayed gratification (Tester, 2009). For instance, an individual who acts in accordance with the pleasure principle would be likely to indulge in pleasurable behaviors without thinking about their long-term effects. However, another person who uses the reality principle may consider their future goals before acting.
The hot-and-cool framework
Another framework for instant vs. delayed gratification has emerged toward the end of the 20th century. Known as the hot-and-cool framework, this newer approach describes the interplay of two systems to facilitate or undermine a person’s self-control. In this framework, the “hot” or “go” system represents the emotional, impulsive, and reflexive drives, whereas the “cool” or “know” system represents the strategic, cognitive, and emotionally-neutral drives (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). In other words, the hot system is associated with satisfying immediate needs and wants, whereas the cool system allows self-regulation of behavior through cognitive processes. We will discuss some key studies on these concepts and their implications next.
The marshmallow test
About 50 years ago, Walter Mischel decided to explore self-control strategies in young children. So, he or another researcher presented preschoolers with a treat, such as a marshmallow. Hence, this experiment later became known as the marshmallow test. Next, the researcher gave the child a simple choice before leaving the room: Either take the treat now or wait for the researcher to return to receive an additional treat (Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970).
Some children took the marshmallow before the experimenter came back. Others distracted themselves using various strategies and were able to resist the treat in front of them. When Mischel and his colleagues followed up with their subjects later, they found that the children who were able to practice self-control grew up to be more academically successful than the children who gave in to their temptation (Mischel, Shoda & Rodriguez, 1989). These results indicated that a preschooler’s ability to delay gratification could predict their future success.
The ability to delay gratification can help us attain our long-term goals and maintain our health. However, with so many temptations around us, it isn’t easy to practice self-control in every case.
Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower. Psychological review, 106(1), 3.
Mischel, W., & Ebbesen, E. B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(2), 329.
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938.
Tester, K. (2009). Pleasure, reality, the novel and pathology. Journal of Anthropological Psychology, 21, 23-6.