Benefits of Delayed Gratification

Written by: Avril Kidd
In delaying your gratification, you will also improve your self-worth as you start to achieve more of your longer-term goals. 40 years of Stanford research found that people with this one quality are more likely to succeed.

A topic that I believe we need to look at more closely is ‘Delayed gratification’ which is the ability to postpone an immediate gain in favor of greater and later reward.

40 years of Stanford research found that people with this one quality are more likely to succeed.

You are probably familiar with the Marshmallow Study where Stanford Professor, Walter Mischel, conducted various psychological studies on children of 4 and 5 years old, to test delayed gratification. The children were tested with a marshmallow, those that were able to delay their gratification for 15 minutes, received a second marshmallow, whilst the immediate gratifiers got nothing more.

 The Researchers continued to track these children as they grew up and found that the delayed gratifiers got higher academic scores, had lower levels of substance abuse, less obesity, dealt with stress better and showed better social skills. They continued to track these children over 40 years and results continued to show that the delayed gratifiers were more successful in life, supporting the theory that the ability to delay gratification is critical for success in life.

Although the Marshmallow experiment has become very popular, one must remember that human behavior is complex so there is more to achieving success than what this experiment shows. However, the studies do show that if you want to succeed, you need to be disciplined and focused, ignoring distractions and not just taking the easy route.

Are people born with delayed gratification?

The question also arose as to whether people are born with the ability to delay gratification, so Rochester University did a further study whereby they split a group of children into 2 groups and exposed one group to a series of ‘unreliable’ experiences (i.e. promised them rewards but didn’t deliver on them), whilst the second group got what they were promised. They then continued with the traditional Marshmallow experiment.

The children in the unreliable group had no reason to trust that the researchers would bring a second marshmallow and as a result didn’t wait very long to eat the first one. The children in the second group, however, were training their brains to see delayed gratification as a positive, as whatever they were promised they got. So, the child’s brain registered (a) that waiting for gratification was worth it and (b) that they had the capability to wait. The result was that the second group waited an average of 4 times longer than the first group.

This proved that the child’s ability to delay gratification and exercise self-control was not a pre-determined trait but was a result of their experiences and environment. It only took a few minutes of reliable or unreliable experiences to push the actions of each child in one direction or the other. The relevance of this is that it shows that we can train ourselves to delay gratification.

As stated by Psychology Today, “Choosing to have something now might feel good, but making the effort to have discipline and manage your impulses can result in bigger or better rewards in the future. Over time, delaying gratification will improve your self-control and ultimately help you achieve your long-term goals faster”.

When we consider the world we now live in, everything is geared to immediate gratification; whereas, in the past we learned delayed gratification without consciously thinking about it. We wrote a letter, posted it and then waited for the reply. We didn’t have Google at our fingertips when we wanted to research something, or Whatsapp for immediate communication, etc. So where and how do the youth of today learn this critical skill, and what about us as adults? Haven’t we also started to fall into the trap of immediate gratification?

Can we learn delayed gratification?

The internet, video games, online shopping, and fast-foods are all examples of instant gratification. These all become subconscious. We need to become more mindful and start to be aware of our urges. We all have urges: to check our email or social media; to eat something sweet or fried; to procrastinate or find distractions. They arise in all of us, but that doesn’t mean we need to act on them. I know how easily I can get distracted by my emails and cell phone notifications and those then feed my procrastination tendencies that prevent me accomplishing what I need to.

We need to learn to wait for what we want and resist the temptation of what we could get or do right now. This includes: healthier eating; working a bit harder for the promotion we want; not settling for what we can get now but holding out for our longer-term goals; saving up for our dream home, the holiday we want to take or even grooming our junior employees – short-term benefit of ‘doing’ the work now rather than delegating it in order to build expertise in the longer term.


4 tips to build delayed gratification

  1. Understand your values and long-term goals

You need to know what you are working towards and what you may need to sacrifice to achieve it, eg: Do I go and socialize with my friends tonight or do I stay home and study so that I can pass my exam and get my degree?

  1. Start small

Start with delaying rewards by a day, then maybe build up to a week, until it becomes more ingrained in your behavior

  1. Be mindful

Watch for those habits of behavior. Be aware of your temptations and defaulting back to those without conscious thought – beware your autopilot tendency.

  1. Eliminate temptation

Eg: if you are trying to save money, set up a debit order that takes the money out of your account before you can spend it. If you are wanting to lose weight or get fit, commit to training with someone and go straight to the gym after work before you find excuses to go for drink or coffee after work.

Consequential Thinking

In delaying your gratification, you will also improve your self-worth as you start to achieve more of your longer-term goals. The EQ Competency of Consequential Thinking will support you to do this as you will be weighing the costs and benefits of your choices and looking at the longer-term view rather than the immediate or short-term benefits, and this will reduce impulsivity. We may need to endure short term pain to achieve long term gain.

How do you use delayed gratification in your life?