We live in an age of instant gratification.
Unlike previous generations, we get everything from social media to Youtube videos to Netflix programs to Amazon same-day delivery to Doordash almost instantly.
How can all these new technologies and instant gratification affect our youth?
What is Instant gratification
Instant gratification, also called immediate gratification, is the urge to satisfy a craving right away, without considering the long-term effects.
What would you do, for instance, if you were offered one candy now and two candies 30 minutes later (assuming you like candies)?
From an economic perspective, waiting will result in an increase in the amounts of reward.
However, making the trade offs between reward now and reward later isn’t so straightforward.
In some cases, the satisfaction of having the candy right now outweighs the other option, making it more appealing to consume one now rather than two later.
Being able to fulfill our desires quickly isn’t always bad.
New businesses are born to offer faster response to our needs, provide convenience, and increase productivity. As a result, millions of people were able to work from home for the past two years.
But a human’s ability to put off immediate gratification in favor of future benefits has long been considered essential for human development.
Some impulsive, instant gratification-driven behaviors may be detrimental to our health and quality of life in the digital age.
Consider these examples:
- A 4-year-old child breaks down because his parents forgot to recharge his iPad’s battery and he cannot watch his favorite cartoon right away.
- A higher schooler has to decide whether to watch a live-stream of her favorite singer or study for the exam taking place the next day.
- A teenager engages in risky behaviors such as shoplifting and taking drugs because they give him an instant high1.
There are biological and psychological reasons why we have a bias for immediate gratification.
Evolution favors now
Favoring instant reward is probably in our genes.
Let’s take food as an example.
During times of scarcity, our ancestors who ate what they found immediately instead of saving for later, which could be stolen by others, were the ones who survived. Manner, politeness, and planning were not necessary survival skills at that time.
This behavior, once adaptive to an environment where food supply was scarce, has become maladaptive nowadays when food is almost always available and self-control is appreciated2.
Past experience could be another reason.
Sometimes the desire for immediate gratification is a result of being lied to in the past or future outcomes being predictable. People who are uncertain about the future or are risk averse do not want to risk losing it by delaying action.
Lack of coping strategies
Children need to know effective strategies to delay their need for instant gratification. Those who can shift attention away from immediate rewards tend to have a longer delay of gratification3.
Insufficient executive functions
Reductions in general executive functions and inhibitory control contribute to the desire to seek immediate satisfaction in some children, especially in the face of positive social cues4.
Lack of self–regulatory skills
In functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists have found that emotional control is even more important than cognitive control in resisting instant rewards5.
Poor emotional regulation skills makes it more difficult for an individual to resist satisfying their needs right away.
Experiencing emotional distress can weaken one’s self-control. When people are upset, they give priority to short-term emotion regulation over other self-regulating goals so they can feel better6.
Lack of consequential life experiences
When children experience regrettable consequences for taking a risk, they can learn greater self-control to resist temptations in the moment7.
Those who are very young or overprotected do not get to experience the adverse effects of short-term thinking enough.
Instant gratification examples
Our everyday life is full of examples of instant gratification.
- Playing video games now instead of studying for a future exam.
- Eating dessert first without finishing the meal.
- Internet users check their Facebook feeds rather than spending time with family.
- Snooze the alarm to sleep in 5 more minutes, not getting up to have ample time to get ready for work.
- Eating unhealthy food and not sticking to a healthy diet.
- Buying an expensive pair of unnecessary shoes on credits even though you cannot afford to.
- Dining out instead of cooking to save money.
- A child eats all the candies herself has instead of sharing with her friends.
- Using Amazon same-day delivery from online purchase instead of grouping purchases into one shipment.
- After sending an email, it feels good receiving an auto response message acknowledging the receipt even though there is no response to the actual content.
- Using substances such as cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs to reduce stress in the moment.
- Accept a lottery payout as a one-time small payment rather than monthly payments that will add up to much more over time.
- Being a couch potato rather than exercising.
- Picking up the phone to check on instant text messages in the middle of a conversation with the boss.
- Kids stare at electronic screens rather than exploring nature.
- Indulge in high-calorie treats instead of sticking to a diet to reach weight goals.
- Checking email or social media 50 times a day.
- Using punishment as the go-to disciplinary method when children make mistake instead of spending time to explain and teach them proper behavior.
- When you’re hungry, having junk food instead of waiting for dinner to be ready.
- A gambler keeps putting money into the slot machine without considering how much money he has already spent.
- 1.Wood PB, Cochran JK, Pfefferbaum B, Arneklev BJ. Sensation-Seeking and Delinquent Substance Use: An Extension of Learning Theory. Journal of Drug Issues. Published online January 1995:173-193. doi:10.1177/002204269502500112
- 2.van den Bos R, de Ridder D. Evolved to satisfy our immediate needs: Self-control and the rewarding properties of food. Appetite. Published online July 2006:24-29. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2006.02.008
- 3.Shoda Y, Mischel W, Peake PK. Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1990:978-986. doi:10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.118
- 4.Wegmann E, Müller SM, Turel O, Brand M. Interactions of impulsivity, general executive functions, and specific inhibitory control explain symptoms of social-networks-use disorder: An experimental study. Sci Rep. Published online March 2, 2020. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-60819-4
- 5.Casey BJ, Somerville LH, Gotlib IH, et al. Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Published online September 2011:14998-15003. doi:10.1073/pnas.1108561108
- 6.Tice DM, Bratslavsky E, Baumeister RF. Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: If you feel bad, do it! Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2001:53-67. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
- 7.Romer D, Duckworth AL, Sznitman S, Park S. Can Adolescents Learn Self-control? Delay of Gratification in the Development of Control over Risk Taking. Prev Sci. Published online March 21, 2010:319-330. doi:10.1007/s11121-010-0171-8