In the 1960s, a Stanford researcher by the name of Walter Mischel did an experiment on a group of four year olds. He offered each child separately a marshmallow and said he was going to leave the room for a moment. He said that they could eat the marshmallow but if they could wait, he would give them a second marshmallow to eat. Some of the children ate the marshmallow right away while others used various methods to distract themselves while they waited in order to get the second marshmallow.
While that was not suprising, Mischel’s follow up research was. He found that when he followed the children over the courses of their lives, into their teens and adulthood, these two groups of children had very different lives. Overall, the children who could delay gratification were considered by society to be better behaved and more intelligent while the children who wanted instant gratification were seen as more stubborn and difficult. As they aged, the differences became more obvious as the children who could delay gratification tended to be wealthier and report higher happiness levels in their own lives.
This long-reaching impact of how people respond to gratification has led to much additional research including recent neuroscience information found at Yale University linking gratification delay to more developed anterior prefrontal cortexes which leads to higher levels of memory, problem solving and intelligence.
On the other hand, human beings’ brains are also wired for wanting instant gratification through a dopamine response which floods our bodies with “feel good” chemicals each time we are rapidly gratified. Think about earning points on video games like Frontierville or Pacman and you know exactly what dopamine is. And because our modern society is filled with all sorts of dopamine stimulating instant gratification opportunities (shopping malls, credit cards, potato chips, movies, etc) we have become gluttons for our own bodies’ drugs and are less and less tolerant of delaying gratification.
The evidence of this has become obvious in our society and our lives: increased debt, decreased wealth, increased divorce, increased mobility from job to job, decreased tolerance for going to college, increased substance abuse, and decreased tolerance for societal change through political procedures. This makes for a very antsy, unhappy, and irritable society looking for the next “quick fix”.
So what can be done to help improve the situation? On a large scale, society needs to understand and value the importance of teaching delayed gratification to our children. Until such a time, each of us can make a special effort to work on retraining our anterior prefrontal cortexes to delay gratification. This can be done by purposely performing behaviors that delay gratification like starting a savings account for a large purchase rather than putting it on a credit card or saving a special sugary treat for after dinner rather than noshing on it in the afternoon. In fact, many “healthy” behaviors are so difficult to perform purely for the reason that they require delayed gratification and the more you practice, the easier it becomes.