| What is Instant gratification | The Marshmallow Test | Negative Effects | Causes | Examples |
What is Instant gratification
Instant gratification, also called immediate gratification, is the urge to satisfy a craving right away, without considering its long term effects or a bigger picture.
We live in an age of instant gratification.
Unlike previous generations, in this digital age, we get social media sites, YouTube videos, Netflix programs, online shopping, Amazon same-day delivery, and Doordash instant meals.
How will all these new technologies and instant gratification affect our youth?
The Marshmallow Test For Immediate Gratification
The marshmallow test is a classic psychology experiment that was first conducted by researchers Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen at Stanford University in the late 1960s1.
Researchers were trying to identify the processes that underlie self-control in preschoolers when they faced temptation.
In the marshmallow experiment, preschoolers had a choice between eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting for a greater reward of two marshmallows later. The children were then measured on how long they could wait to eat the first marshmallow.
The researchers found that the longer the wait times shown by the preschoolers, the better the outcome in adolescence, such as higher SAT scores, better social cognitive, and more emotional coping2. They were also rated as having greater self-control, less prone to temptation, more intelligent, and less distracted when concentrating.
Negative Effects of Instant Gratification
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 when there was a worldwide lock down.
But the ability to put off immediate pleasure in favor of a better reward in the long run is essential for the development of self-control.
Short term gratification habitually leads us to expect immediate results, which can lead us to some pretty dangerous outcomes.
Some impulsive behavior aimed at short-lived pleasure may lead to bad health or low quality of life.
For instance, a teenager may engage in risky behaviors such as shoplifting and taking drugs because they give him an immediate reward3.
There are biological and psychological reasons why we have a bias for immediate gratification.
Evolution favors now
Favoring immediate reward is probably in our genes.
Human beings have an innate desire to meet their basic needs.
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 in the modern world when food is almost always available and self-control is appreciated more4.
Past experience could be another big 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 their future life or are risk averse do not want to risk losing it by delaying action.
Lack of coping strategies
Children need to know effective strategies for them to delay gratification.
Those who shift attention away from immediate rewards tend to have a longer delay of gratification5. It was a skill not exhibited by those who couldn’t wait for the second marshmallow.
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 cues6.
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 an instant reward7.
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 long-term goals so they can feel better8.
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 moment9.
Those who are very young or overprotected do not get to experience the adverse effects of short-term thinking enough to care about long term consequences.
Instant Gratification Examples
Our everyday life is full of examples of instant gratification.
- Playing video games now instead of studying for next week’s exam.
- 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.
- Making impulse purchases rather than saving for retirement.
- A child eats all the candies herself instead of sharing with her friends.
- Dining out instead of cooking to save money.
- Eating at a fast-food restaurant for convenience despite its negative consequences on one’s physical health.
- Using substances such as cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs to reduce stress in the moment despite their negative health impacts.
- Accept a lottery payout as a one-time smaller payment rather than monthly payments that will add up to much more over time.
- Being a couch potato rather than exercising.
- Kids stare at electronic screens rather than exploring the nature.
- Indulge in high-calorie treats instead of sticking to a diet to reach weight goals.
- Using punishment as the go-to disciplinary method when children make mistake instead of spending time to explain and teach them proper behavior.
- Ordering delivery instead of cooking up a meal to save money.
- Bribing or frightening a child into compliance by using rewards and punishments instead of explaining to them right from wrong.
- Buying things on credit cards even though you cannot afford.
- Procrastinating on a task because it feels easier to do something else right now, even though it means extra work later.
- Kids abandon studying because defying their controlling parents makes them feel good, regardless of the harm to their future.
- Staying up late to watch TV and then wake up feeling tired the next day.
- 1.Mischel W, Ebbesen EB, Raskoff Zeiss A. Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1972:204-218. doi:10.1037/h0032198
- 2.Mischel W, Shoda Y, Peake PK. The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1988:687-696. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
- 3.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
- 4.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
- 5.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:10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1688
- 6.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
- 7.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
- 8.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:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
- 9.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