The Little Known Psychology of Delayed Gratification

by RC on May 10, 2011

In the age of high-speed Internet, fast food chains and non-stop transcontinental travel, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that everything can and must happen in the blink of an eye. You want to set up a business on your own? Click click and click—your website is up and running, you have an e-newsletter ready to be sent to your mailing list and your servers are in high gear, waiting for site traffic to pick up.

These days, we think in terms of seconds and minutes, not days or months or years. We want everything instantly because we think we are entitled to it. As entrepreneurs, we fret and fidget at the slow trickle of sales and site visitors over a week-long period. As customers, we tap our foot impatiently whenever the pizza guy is late by a couple of minutes.

The sad but hard truth is that not everything can be hurried along, even with all the fancy technological gadgets and the cool new toys we use to make our everyday lives more convenient. Success, happiness, and achievements don’t happen in an instant. You have to spend time, money and effort to turn things your way and make something of yourself.

On that note, it’s important to remember that get-rich-quick schemes rarely ever succeed. If you hang in there long enough and hard enough, you just might see your dreams coming true one by one. This is called delayed gratification.

The marshmallow experiment

Psychologists were able to verify the concept of delaying self-gratification with a simple test: they put a marshmallow in front of a kid and told her to wait until they came back so she can have two marshmallows instead of just one. If the kid rang the bell to call for the tester before he’s back in the room, she can eat the marshmallow in front of her, but the other one will be forfeited.

Sounds simple enough, right? Delaying self-gratification is the idea of giving up one thing now in order to gain something better in the future. The psychological test outline above illustrated how important it is for people to hold out just a little if they wanted a bigger prize.

But this is much easier said than done. After all, why wait for another marshmallow when you already have sitting on a plate right in front of you?

This kiddie test didn’t just demonstrate how kids behave when they are tempted. Later on the psychologist followed up on the lives, careers and school habits of the children who were included in the experiment. He found out that the kids who were able to wait for the second marshmallow were generally better off emotionally, mentally and psychologically than those who settled for just one marshmallow.

The secret to success

The whole idea behind delayed gratification is that you can ultimately get what you want if you only wait long enough and work hard enough for it.

Nothing substantial comes cheap and quick. Those overnight dot com millionaires among us are the exception, not the general rule. It’s not so bad to get inspired by people who built up their wealth through fast and foolproof methods, but you have to remember that there’s no instant formula to instant success.

Scratch that—there’s something you can do to guarantee your success, but not the instant way. If you can delay gratification now and still keep working for what you want to happen, your efforts will eventually pay off. Consider the marshmallow your reward for patience and perseverance, and the victory tastes even sweeter.

Delayed gratification builds your character and makes you a more powerful force. Keeping a lid on your impulses shapes you into a better person and gives you time to rethink your options. Translated in business terms, you don’t always have to implement the first strategy that comes to mind, or grab the first client who walks in your door. With time, you can come up with an even better solution to your current business troubles, or you can close the deal with a far more important customer.

It’s all a matter of timing and willingness to look beyond what’s happening now. The marshmallow test doesn’t just gauge a person’s self-control, but also his vision and dedication. If you really want that other treat bad enough, you must bide your time until you can lay your hand on both marshmallows. With every knee-jerk reaction or impulsive decision you shy away from, you save yourself the trouble of patching things up when they go wrong later on.

This is a guest post from Ally, who is part of the team that manages Australian Credit Cards, a blog that covers topics on the psychology of personal finance. Before joining ACC, she was a Media Planner with McCann Worldgroup Philippines, Inc., with award-winning executions, including the Levi’s 501 “Live Unbuttoned” global campaign.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lucia Perry May 20, 2011 at 5:56 am

I found your article very interesting. It is so true that most of us want an instant gratification in anything we want in life. It is amazing the amount of people who want to get everything without putting the effort. Your article clearly explains the importance of self control, good timing and the willingness to keep working until the desired result is achieve. Well done!


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