Delaying Gratification

Time is fickle and choice is tyranny. Choosing to spend time on something presently less gratifying in the pursuit of future gratification is usually a conundrum. It's a hard-learned skill to conjure a hypothetical reality that has equal significance to a tangible reality. It's a harder-learned skill to manage a hypothetical reality—to balance its values with the present. With every decision, the brain ensues in a civil war between the prefrontal cortical systems that govern reasoning, personality expression, and social cognition, and the underlying primordial motivational systems that are more oriented toward drives and impulses. The winner dictates the mind's ability to regulate desires: do we want to feel good now, or do we want to feel better later?

Throughout the 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted his notorious "Marshmallow" studies, where a child was brought into a room and presented with a marshmallow. The child was told that the researcher had to leave the room, but that if they could wait until the researcher returned, the child would get two marshmallows instead. The researcher would leave the room for 15 minutes, or until the child could no longer resist eating the marshmallow in front of them. Longitudinal studies conducted by Shoda et. al. (1990) suggested that children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow scored significantly higher on standardized tests, cognitive ability exams, and the ability to cope with stress and frustration in adolescence. Subsequently, Shoda et. al. (1990) argued that a child's ability to delay gratification was directly linked to self-regulation—a term that would from then be known as the best predictor of conventional success in the field of contemporary psychology.

In 2013, Kidd et. al. published a study that introduced new factors correlated to a child's ability to delay gratification. In the study, each child was primed to believe the environment was either reliable or unreliable. In both conditions, before doing the marshmallow test, the child participant was given an art project to do. In the unreliable condition, the child was provided with a set of old crayons and told that if they waited, the researcher would bring them a brand new set. The researcher would leave and return empty-handed after two and a half minutes. Then they would repeat this sequence of events with a set of stickers. The children in the reliable condition experienced the same setup, but in this case, the researcher came back with the promised art supplies. Then the marshmallow test was administered. Results showed that those in the unreliable condition waited an average of three minutes to eat the marshmallow, while those in the reliable condition waited an average of 12 minutes. The findings suggest that children’s ability to delay gratification isn’t solely the result of self-control, but also a direct response the stability of their environment. This re-introduced "nurture" into the age-old Nature vs. Nurture debate, making it abundantly clear that one's ability to delay gratification was not strictly hereditary.

Today, research is being done on the correlation between ability to delay gratification and trait conscientiousness, as conscientiousness is fast becoming one of the most sought-after personality traits in young workers, and a second large predictor of mainstream success. According to Allen (2020), children who display these behaviors in controlled settings effectively mature into individuals who "get better grades, have better close relationships, manage their emotions better, have fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, are less prone to eating disorders, are better adjusted, have higher self-esteem, and get along better with other people" (ch. 8). Essentially, the children who wait for the second marshmallow become the adults who invest their earnings instead of buying fancy clothes. Patience has the potential to pay off in big dividends.

The kicker with patience, however, and with delayed gratification holistically, is that there is such a thing as being too patient. Waiting 15 minutes for another marshmallow is a lot easier that waiting 15 days. Waiting 15 years to collect a large sum of untaxed money is easier than waiting 50 years. And waiting 150 years for anything is utterly pointless because you wouldn't be around to collect. Successful execution of delayed gratification is maximizing the payoff and one's ability to enjoy the payoff. One must weigh the benefits of waiting because, after all, the goal is always gratification, and it should never be delayed indefinitely. 

Do you practice delayed gratification? What areas of your life might this practice be useful? How well have you historically been able to delay gratification? What kind of payoff are you delaying it for? Can you think of any other factors that might contribute to one's ability to delay gratification?


  1. Allen, C. (2020). The Balance of Personality. PDXOpen: Open Educational Resources.

  2. Kidd, C.; Palmeri, H.; and Aslin, R.N. (2013). Rational Snacking: Young Children's Decision-Making on the Marshmallow Task is Moderated By Beliefs About Environmental Reliability. Cognition, 126(1), p. 109-114.

  3. Shoda, Y.; Mischel, W.; & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), p. 978–986.