Instant Gratification

03.07.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course Consumer behavior: Becoming an empowered consumer by Maureen McGuinness


In the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel conducted experiments on children aged four and five years old to reveal what is believed to be one of the most important characteristics for success in life.

During the experiment, each child was offered a choice by a tester between receiving a small reward immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger reward) a short while later. To get the larger reward, the child would have to wait 15 minutes, during which the tester would leave the room and return. The reward was a marshmallow. If the child did not eat the marshmallow in those 15 minutes, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. The children were filmed during the 15 minutes. Some ate the marshmallow as soon as the door had closed behind the tester, others tried to restrain themselves by fidgeting in their chair and then ate the marshmallow, and a few children managed to wait 15 minutes without giving in.

This study became known as The Marshmallow Experiment and is one of the most significant studies on the power of delayed gratification. The study didn’t end in the room where the children were offered the marshmallow; it became most significant when the researchers followed up with the children once they had grown up. The researchers tracked each child’s progress in several areas.

They found that the children who were willing to delay gratification and waited for the second marshmallow ended up having better life outcomes: higher SAT scores, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, lower levels of substance abuse, and lower likelihood of obesity.


Discipline and Productivity

Our brains are complicated, so I am not stating that we all work in exactly the same way. What this study does reveal is something we all know deep down: discipline and self-regulation can help you achieve more. Discipline is the ability to stick to something and not get distracted in the long term. You choose the best course of action regardless of what you desire. Your desires and impulses don’t determine how you behave. You’re in control.

When you see something you want, do you buy it immediately?

How aware are you of your impulses?


Delaying Gratification

Have you ever eaten too much food and felt terrible afterward? We’re often told to wait 20 minutes before grabbing a second helping of food. Why? Because it can take up to 20 minutes for our stomachs to register the food we’ve eaten and tell our brain to release the hormone to make us feel full. With a small dose of discipline, we can avoid over-consumption.

There are two steps that you can take to practice delaying gratification:

1. Put down strong foundations. Delaying gratification is harder to do when your basic needs haven’t been addressed. For example, get enough sleep so you won’t feel the need for stimulants like caffeine. Use meal planning to have food ready to prepare (or prepared in advance) before you’re hungry so that you don’t feel the need to buy (unhealthier) food on the go.

2. Use a 30-day list. Putting space between your impulses and your actions can not only help reduce your spending in the short-term, it will help you practice discipline in other parts of your life where you’ve been meaning to make big lifestyle changes. A 30-day list delays your decision for purchase and allows you to decide whether the purchase is appropriate when you’re in a more “rational” state of mind.

If you reflect on what you learned in Lesson 4: Hedonic Adaptation, you may have already recognized how that lesson complements Lesson 5: Instant Gratification. You know from Lesson 4 that despite any major positive or negative change in circumstances, you will return to a stable level of happiness. You can see how you will adapt to delayed gratification if you practice it regularly and how this may be beneficial, not only to your finances but to other areas of your life. In Lesson 6, you’ll learn more about how we try to better ourselves through spending.


Recommended book

The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification by Paul Roberts


Share with friends