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.

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21 comments on “Delayed Gratification

  1. hilaryhighpa says:

    Love this. We have never carried any credit card debt and I will always be grateful to HWH (and my Dad for his “never owe” teachings) for making it possible for Kelly and me to pay off all of our law school loans in 3 years. Can’t say that I don’t eat the candy bar, though…. Have a great day Bill.

    >

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    • Bill says:

      Funny you should bring up HWH. The “of counsel” position was eliminated as of today, so for the first time in over 30 years I have no professional relationship with a firm. I sat down this morning to write a post about the things about my professional career that I’m grateful for and I got distracted by the marshmallow test. I know folks who made a lot more than me and lived paycheck to paycheck. In a couple of cases I know of people in that position who went bankrupt. But for folks like you (and me) who had the discipline, that job enabled me to pay off my student loans and transition to this life. I had to defer the gratification a LONG time, but I did finally get there. Good to hear from you. Maybe I’ll do that post tomorrow. 🙂

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  2. Interesting experiment.
    I must have waited for my marshmallow………………………
    My son, however, is another story.
    😀

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  3. Ed says:

    If I had to guess, I would say the ability to wait 15 minutes is due to nurture rather than nature. My grandparents and parents both were big proponents of delayed gratification and saving your pennies and I am as well so perhaps there is a nature component as well.

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    • Bill says:

      Consensus seems to be that it’s a combination. It’s hard for me to imagine that by age four a child would already have absorbed (or failed to absorb) the self-control lessons that will affect the path of his life, but it’s equally hard for me to believe that it’s all predetermined genetics.

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  4. Laughing. I can remember when I was a teenager working a summer job at picking pears I would not drink any water the last hour because I wanted to save my thirst for the Constant Comment ice tea I would get when I arrived home. Wise? Probably not. But it certainly was delicious. –Curt

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  5. Scott says:

    You know my thoughts on “deserve”, Bill.
    There was an old fella in our community whose funeral was just the other day. He had polio when he was a kid less than 5, and it left him without the use of his legs, and with low lung function. But he got married, supported his wife and three kids, and farmed his land. Finally in his sixties, with his shoulders plumb wore out from crutches all his life, he got on disability for the first time. I think he was in his low 80s when he died.
    You know that church parking lot was overflowing for that funeral, even though it was a Tuesday midday service.

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    • Scott says:

      I suppose that has less to do with delayed gratification and more to do with good old fashioned hard work, but that story’s been on my mind recently.

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    • Bill says:

      Great story. Folks like that are heroes.

      Meanwhile there are millions of people getting disability payments for no good reason.

      If my novel ever makes it to print, I think you’re going to like it.

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  6. Joanna says:

    Arrrhh! Now where do I start 🙂 I teach Sociology and deferred gratification is one of the points in the course that students have to discuss. Often they blame the poor for not deferring gratification by buying a tv or something of that ilk. There is one flaw in that argument. If you are poor and suddenly get some money, we are told that the wise thing to do is to put it away to save it for something better later. The problem with that is that often experience tells you that it will be taken away from you anyway, either through sickness or an unexpected expenditure like a large car repair. This money is unlikely to be enough and may even be just a drop in the ocean, so why not spend it now and enjoy the moment – so the reasoning goes. To be honest there is something to be said for that. So did the child who ate the marshmallow just not trust the researcher enough? Had experience told them that if they did not eat it there and then it would be taken away from them anyway? Did they even believe that the researcher would give them another marshmallow?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I don’t believe there were any poor children in the original study. Subsequently the study has been replicated controlling for socio-economic factors with the same results. Of course if the methodology was flawed then the correlations shouldn’t be there. Consensus seems to be that the study correctly measures what it is intended to measure and is an accurate predictor of future success, for whatever reason.

      I’m not a fan of making generalizations about “the poor.” There is wide diversity among poor people of course. Some poor people have excellent self-control and understand the importance of deferred gratification, and some don’t. Those who don’t will almost always stay poor. Those who do won’t all escape poverty, but some will. I’ve seen this in my life.

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      • Joanna says:

        It is true that it is wrong to make generalisations about the poor, but I would like to know that the methodology took into consideration the degree of trust the person had. Without trust the instant gratification makes much more sense and I see that a lot here in Latvia where there is a low trust in those in authority. I have also seen where those who grab for things can do quite well. They are not always people we like to be around, but they can still do quite well for themselves – a certain president of a prominent country comes to mind 🙂

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  7. BeeHappee says:

    Bill, year back, I used to refer to this experiment and pat myself on the back that I had a kid with iron will power, Iron lady we called her. But I am not so sure of all that anymore, as I saw my children change drastically in various directions, and I am becoming more and more skeptical of true value of such experiments.
    Sometimes I feel like we are judging ourselves and others about happiness, success, patience, ability to delay gratification or not… When we look at plants, we do not say, look, this one is adapted to grow only where it rains weekly, what a failure!; and this one grows in the desert where the plant is adapted to withstand 3 months of drought, look at this happy successful plant able to delay gratification. 🙂 Planted in the right spot, we can all achieve full potential.

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    • Bill says:

      Nature won’t always select for the ability to defer gratification. In some cultures and societies that will be of no or limited benefit. But in ours, for better or worse, it is of great benefit. Even if we disregard the importance of things like SAT scores, educational achievements and income, it is also correlated to health, longevity, social relationships, etc.

      I find the study and its implications fascinating and I’ve blogged about it before. I was reminded of it recently when I heard an interview with Angela Duckworth in which she discussed it and her replication studies.

      Have you seen the videos of kids being tested? They’re hilarious. I read somewhere that another study showed kids who refused to look at the marshmallow did better than those who felt it, smelled it, licked it, etc. I’d like to think our kids would’ve waited, but I rather doubt it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, my question is how in the world did they track those kids all the way through their life until death? That in itself would be an amazing feat. My own experiment with kids just for fun is to watch them eat their food. Do they dive right into the food that they like the best or do they save that for last and savor it. Some will eat the not so favorite food first and others will gobble up their favorite first. I personally was a kid that ate the not so good (in my humble opinion) food first and saved the best for last. Now that I look back on my life, I can see that I was a saver and not a spender all my life. Now in my older years, I really don’t find the need to spend on much of any thing except the basics. Clothes are worn until even the thrift stores don’t want them. Food is very basic and I’m working on growing more of it. Cars are worthless and only good for parts when I’m done with them. My 13 year old pickup has 221,000 miles and still is running strong. I’m hoping for 300,000 or more. I do use a credit card to simply not have to carry cash but pay it off in full at the end of the month. So far my credit card will let me still do that but I’ve heard rumors that some are charging a fee when interest is not paid on purchases.

    It’s really not about how much money a person earns but how they manage it. Those that can live within their means and manage money well will have a successful life whether they are rich or poor. Everything in our culture tries to side track that. Even education will put young people in debt for a big portion of their lives. I remember back when I was in auto mechanic school, I landed a career job that paid $83.50 a week while others in school worked for a automaker plant making $200.00 a week. I was so tempted to jump ship and make the easy more money. As the years passed by lay offs were prevalent and pay scales increased for me. After 10 years, I suspect those other guys were long gone from auto manufacturers. I’m not sure what happened to my class mates but I’m sure glad that stuck with my career job for 41 years. I retired with a healthy pension and great health insurance benefits. It could have been way different if delayed gratification wasn’t ingrained into me.

    Have a great delayed gratification day.

    Nebraska Dave

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    • Bill says:

      I’m in full agreement with all those things of course. Both of our vehicles are 14 years old. Cherie’s Pilot has 240k miles on it and my truck has 115k. We don’t intend to replace either until they’re all the way used up. These days I rarely buy clothes, but when I do I try to buy them used. Same with most other purchases. And when clothes wear out (my wife thinks my definition of “worn out” is too strict) they become rags. Etc. That’s just sensible living imho and the way nearly everyone used to live. I don’t have a pension but I knew that I wouldn’t and we planned accordingly. I’ve deferred a lot of gratification in my life and I’m gratified that I did. 🙂

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