Delayed Gratification

The notion that success in life is in part dependent upon the ability/willingness to delay gratification seems good common sense. We can use a credit card to buy an expensive item now, or we can wait until we’ve saved up the money to pay cash for it. We can have a candy bar now, or we can wait for a wholesome meal at mealtime.

I would argue that much of what’s wrong with our society these days can be attributed to an unwillingness to defer gratification. The things we want, we want NOW. Never mind working, saving and planning. It doesn’t help that there are billions of advertising dollars being spent to overpower us with the false belief that we “deserve” our rewards now. To heck with deferred gratification. All we want to defer is payment and the ultimate reckoning.

In one of the most famous behavioral experiments ever, often called “the marshmallow test,” scientists tested children’s ability/willingness to defer gratification. The subject children were given a treat (a cookie or a marshmallow, for example) and told that they could eat it immediately, but that if they waited 15 minutes before eating it, they’d be given a second treat. After giving the instructions the experimenters left the room and observed the children via hidden cameras. As might be expected, some children ate the marshmallow immediately. Others tried to resist but eventually succumbed. About one-third of the subject children held off the full 15 minutes and earned a second marshmallow.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. The researchers tracked the subjects through life and discovered that the children who deferred gratification in the marshmallow test turned out to outperform the other children in every quantifiable measurement. They had higher SAT scores, higher educational achievements, they were healthier, their marriages were more successful, they lived longer, etc. What they observed was that the ability of a four-year-old child to defer gratification indicated that child’s likelihood of a successful, happy and healthy life, as compared to their four-year-old peers who didn’t defer their gratification in exchange for a greater reward.

The study has been replicated many times and the results have always been the same. As Angela Duckworth says in her recent book Grit, controlling for all the factors critics have identified, such as socio-economic status, how hungry the child was, etc. the test has been replicated enough to prove that it does indeed measure what it was supposed to measure–a child’s demonstrated power of self-control, that is the child’s willingness/ability to defer gratification, is a indicator of a successful life ahead.

Leaving aside the troublesome issue of whether we inherit (at least in part) our ability to defer gratification, these tests are compelling evidence that health, happiness and success in life is largely dependent upon something as commonsensical as self-control and deferred gratification.

This may be one of those cases in which we spend an awful lot of time, money and energy looking for complex answers to questions that can actually be answered much more simply.