Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Delay of gratification

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Delay of gratification:
What is delayed gratification?
What does it indicate about motivation?
What desirable outcomes are predicted by delay of gratification?

Overview[edit | edit source]

“…even the most elementary, primitive steps in socialization require the individual to delay impulses…” (Mischel, 1974).

Society as it is known today would be vastly different and far less civilised if individuals were unable to elicit self-imposed delays (Mischel, 1974). The ability to control one’s behavioural impulses, desires, motivation and emotions is the core feature of the ‘self’ (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001). This process of self-regulation is what is known as delayed gratification, a term that is commonly used, however, seldom related to self-discipline.

Impulse control requires inner-personal awareness to stifle the quest for short-term, usually pleasurable rewards, in pursuit of larger long-term goals (Daniel, Stanton & Epstein, 2013; Duckworth, Tsukayama & Kirby, 2013; Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001). For long-term outcomes to be achieved, individuals must avoid responding to immediate stimuli, instead engaging distal strategies resulting in the production of significant, yet delayed, rewards (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001).

The impulse to move towards the pleasurable and thus away from the unpleasant is essential to the survival of all organisms (Beran, 2002). However, the impulse to want to obtain instant gratification has become a key driving force in human society. This quasi-need, an urgent yet false belief that a specific need must be satisfied to facilitate a feeling of well-being, often goes against what is in the best interest of the human species (Duckworth, Tsukayama & Kirby, 2013). Immediate gratification has been linked to major health problems such as obesity, addiction behaviours such as smoking and illicit drug use, self-harming, unsafe sexual practices, depression and anti-social behaviour (Brewer & Potenza, 2008; Daniel, Stanton & Epstein, 2013; Mischel et al., 2011; Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001). In vast contrast delayed gratification has been shown to aid self-esteem, self-regulation, happiness in life, effective decision making, verbal fluency, social competence, academic ability and ability to deal with frustration (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990; Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001).

There has been copious amounts of research conducted surrounding the apparent failures to delay gratification, much of which focus on cognitive control, ventral striatum interactions, limbic system potential and prefrontal cortex development (Muresanu, Stan, & Buzoianu, 2012; Winstanley, Theobald, Dalley, & Robbins, 2005). All of these are key factors when studying the delayed gratification paradigm, yet when interested in how to improve one’s lifestyle through improved self-control and reduced impulsivity, it is more worthwhile to focus on research that involves environmental, social and behavioural interactions with ones 'self'.

What is delayed gratification?[edit | edit source]

Delayed gratification is the ability to say “No” to yourself. It is will power, ego strength, self-discipline, self-control and self-regulation.

Adam and Eve's choice to satisfy their immediate desires encapsulates the Delay of Gratification conundrum

The question surrounding delayed gratification, or impulsivity, is how to control such a powerful instinct. It is one of the oldest unanswered questions in history. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, encapsulates the issue in its entirety (Ainslie, 1975). Wait and be reward handsomely or satisfy your immediate impulses, forgoing the possibility of a much larger reward.

Delay gratification relates to personal skills such as patience, impulse control, self-control and willpower, all of which encompass self-regulation (Doerr & Baumeister, 2011). Self-regulation describes a person’s capacity to respond to environmental stimuli by adapting responses regarding ones’ needs and wants (McGuire & Kable, 2013).

The ability to delay gratification develops with maturity and is a learnt process that enables individuals to withstand short-term pleasures in favour of valued long-term goals. It is dependent on the development of executive cognitive function, such as cognitive control, which has an underlying effect on attention, self-monitoring, and planning (Schlam, Wilson, Shoda, Mischel, & Ayduk, 2013).

Experimental study[edit | edit source]

Marshmallows are tempting

The Stanford marshmallow experiment is perhaps the most well-known study within the field of delayed gratification. Mischel, Ebbesen and Zeiss (1972) demonstrated how a child’s capacity to delay gratification can be highly predictive of their long term social, academic and psychological success. Early childhood participants, aged 3.6 - 5.8 years, were offered a choice between a small reward of one treat, a single marshmallow, that could be consumed immediately, or a more rewarding prize of two treats if they were able to wait until the experimenter returned to the room, approximately 15 minutes later, without giving into the temptation and eating the marshmallow in front of them.

In the sample of over 600 participants, only one-third of the children were able to endure the 15 minute wait thereby delaying gratification to receive the treat of a second marshmallow. In a longitudinal follow-up study of these children many years later, it was found that those who had controlled their immediate gratification need for the smaller reward, had better life outcomes relating to persistence and self-control, including education attainment (Schlam et al., 2013) and Body Mass Index (BMI) (Ayduk et al., 2000).

This same experiment has been repeated numerous times, including cross-cultural studies (see Joachim de Posada), since it was originally conducted and the results remain the same. Approximately one-third of all children studied are able to resist temptation and delay their immediate desire for the treat. Children as young as 3.5 years of age understanding that, if they can withstand the frustration of not allowing themselves to consume the treat straight away then the reward will be doubly delicious. This is delayed gratification.

Age and delayed gratification[edit | edit source]

Age was found to be a major determinate in the Stanford marshmallow experiment (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972).

Despite the widespread implications that delayed gratification may have on the human lifestyle, the majority of early research was conducted on animals (Beran, 2002, Mischel, 1974). Whilst these studies provided a strong path forward into the understanding of innate needs versus delay gratification, it was unable to encapsulate the advanced cognitive thinking of the human race. Animal research was not able to investigate the effect of emotions, social identity theory nor academic potential in relation to delayed gratification (Beran, 2002; Mischel, 1974).

When research advanced to human studies, children became the focus as it was hypothesised that delay behaviours are more instinctual in the younger years of life and become more controlled as individuals’ ages (Duckworth, Tsukayama & Kirby, 2013; Mischel, Shoda and Rodriguez, 1989).

From birth, infants use immediate gratification as they are unable to wait for their wants and needs to be satisfied. This innate urgency is exhibited as a lack of impulse control. With age, comes the ability to regulate. Children develop the ability to master both impulsivity and control over their immediate desires, thus exhibiting increased able to prolong gratification (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989). This contest over desire control has been extensively documented by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic theory. His Id, ego and super-ego theory proposed that the human psyche is divided into three main drivers which are in constant battle with each other. The ego’s role is to balance the immediate pleasure desires of the id against those of the more moral superego (Funder & Block, 1989).

Until the age of four, children display maladaptive strategies relating to delay of gratification. These include looking at the reward and focusing on the arousing features. By five years of age, the majority of children are demonstrating improved self-control, recognizing that counter-productive activities such as focusing on the immediate reward is detrimental to the successfully achievement of long-term goals (Mischel, Shoda, Rodriguez, 1992). The largest change is seen between the ages of eight and thirteen, this is when children develop advanced cognitive abilities which allow for the differentiation between abstract and arousing thoughts, increasing the ability to delay for a larger reward (Mischel, Shoda, Rodriguez, 1992).

It is believed that once delay strategies are developed, the capacity to resist immediate gratification is relatively stable throughout adulthood (Casey et al., 2011). The strength of this argument however has been challenged, with research indicating that self-discipline is a continually developing life-skill (Bembenutty, & Karabenick, 2004). As the human body moves into old age, it is often accompanied by a decline in cognitive function, which in turn may cause a reduction in reward delay strategies (Löckenhoff, O'Donoghue, Dunning, 2011). However, little research has been conducted in the area of geriatric delay strategies. This is an area where more attention may be focused in the future.

Motivation and delayed gratification[edit | edit source]

Research suggests that emotional distress has the ability to impair motivation, which in-turn restricts an individual’s capacity to regulate self-control in the normal and optimal fashion (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001).

This is further supported by Bandura’s (1977) self-efficacy theory. Bandura’s research highlights that for a person to be motivated to strive towards goals, they must first believe in their ability to achieve. Therefore if an individual is feeling emotional challenged, they are less likely to be thinking positively regarding their ability to successfully achieve outcomes, thus successful delay gratification strategies towards long-term goals are maladaptive, leading to a preference towards immediate gratification seeking (Bandura, 1977; Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001).

Outcomes predicted by delaying gratification[edit | edit source]

Self-regulation, self-discipline and self-control are vitally important tools that have allowed humans to evolve as a species (Doerr & Baumeister, 2011). They contribute to achieving success in social situations, the workforce, academia, as well as relationships and provide a general life happiness that satisfies the soul (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001).

Positives[edit | edit source]

self-control and the ability to delay gratification have been linked to positive health and life achievements(Daniel, Stanton, & Epstein, 2013; Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990).

Health benefits include a low Body Mass Index (BMI), higher likelihood of engaging in the recommended daily amount of exercise for good health and decreased involvement in risky health choices such as excessive drinking habits and smoking (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001, Mischel et al, 2011).

Life achievements highlighted in the research include; higher paid employment, high attainment of education, better martial relationships, increased ability to deal with life frustrations and an overall higher standard of living (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001; Duckworth, Tsukayama & Kirby, 2013; Ainslie, 1975).

Negatives[edit | edit source]

Whilst self-regulation and delay of gratification are usually seen as positive attributes and life-skills, balance is the key.

Extreme levels of self-regulation have been linked to major health concerns and psychological maladjustment (Doerr & Baumeister, 2011). Clinical disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (ODC), anorexia nervosa, anxiety and depression have been associated with an excessive need to self-control, self-regulation and delay gratification (Doerr & Baumeister, 2011).

Outcomes predicted by immediate gratification[edit | edit source]

Immediate gratification seeking has increased throughout today’s global society. Children and adults alike have the resources to command instant outcomes from their daily life choices. Through the use of social media websites, internet shopping, email and instant money loaning companies the need to wait for anything no longer exists. Increasing debt, higher levels of obesity, increasing prison populations and decreasing world resource have alerted researchers to the need to focus attention on the ability of human beings to withhold gratification (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001; Babinski, Hartsough, & Lambert, 1999).

Positives[edit | edit source]

Current research does not contribute to the benefits of immediate gratification. Further study into the benefits of immediate gratifications and therefore a balanced understanding of the phenomenon would strengthen the literature and support this field of study. The negative implications regarding the failure to postpone gratification are all too clearly evident. An understanding and balanced argument as to why immediate gratification is an option once it is no longer a survival tool may assist in providing clarification, anonymity and relatedness to personal choices.

Negatives[edit | edit source]

Obesity, bulimia, alcohol abuse, addiction behaviours such as smoking and illicit drug use, self-harming, unsafe sexual practices, depression, unaffordable purchases and anti-social behaviour are all side effects of an inability to delay gratification (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001; Mischel, 1974).

Research indicates that deficiencies in impulse control are linked to a broad-spectrum of personality and social problems. An inability to control impulsive behaviours is the major underlying factor contributing to the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) conundrum that is currently plaguing societal values (Tice, Bratslavsky & Baumeister, 2001).

Antisocial and criminal behaviour, increased violence and physical aggression, and failure to achieve reasonable work and interpersonal satisfaction have also been shown to be partially related to an inadequate delay pattern (Mischel, 1974). It can be argued that some social and personal problems are created from excessive self-imposed frustration, yet a majority of difficulties result from failure to be taught, to learn and/or to practice acceptable patterns of delay and self-restraint (Mischel, 1974).

Obesity is another major consequence of an inability to delay gratification. The results of a 30 year follow-up study conducted using Mischel and colleagues (1972) original Stanford marshmallow experiment participants, showed that every minute an original participant delayed gratification translated to a .2% reduction in Body Mass Index (BMI) (Schlam et al., 2013). Results such as these indicate that one’s ability to self-regulate can have a dramatic effect on food consumption and the ability to regulate body weight throughout life.

Self-help and delayed gratification[edit | edit source]

The brain is not an unchangeable organ. Behaviours are learned and adapted throughout life; this is the beauty of the human body. Training the 'self' delayed gratification techniques is possible, altering daily behaviour patterns has the ability to impact the brain's usual responses to stimuli (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972).

Behaviour psychologists focus on teaching individuals how to acquire the skills of delayed gratification. This area of psychology has developed techniques to assist with the delay of temptations, thus increasing one's ability to withhold the desire for immediate outcomes, instead focusing on long-term rewards (Miller & Karniol, 1976). Behaviourists focus on the effective principles of reinforcement and shaping, which promote learning and self-control, this technique is known as operant conditioning.

Edward Thorndikes “Law of effect” outlines, behaviours that produce satisfaction are strengthened “stamped in”, whereas behaviours that produce unsatisfactory outcomes are weakened “stamped out” (Powell, Symbaluk, & Honey, 2009). This hallmark theory postulated by Thorndike and demonstrate in his puzzle box experiments in 1905, led B. F. Skinner to realise the potential of operant conditioning. Skinner determined that further research into the effects of reinforcement and punishment on behaviour was required and thus proceeded to manipulate the learning processes in animals (Powell, Symbaluk, & Honey, 2009). Operant conditioning uses rewards to increase a desired behaviour and punishments to decrease or eliminate an undesirable behaviour. Subjects can be rewarded by positive reinforcement, receiving something pleasurable, or via negative reinforcement, removing something unpleasant (Horvath, Misra, Epner, & Cooper, 2013). Punishments also come in positive, the subject receives an unpleasant sensation or consequence, and negative, the subject loses something pleasant (Powell, Symbaluk, & Honey, 2009). However for operant conditioning to be effective, the rewards and punishments must be reliable and significant enough to entice the change within the subject, as operant conditioning is a learned relationship brought about by the knowledge of cause-and-effect (Horvath et al., 2013).

Other techniques that have shown to improve delay gratification abilities include that art of Mindfulness and the practice of goal setting (Bembenutty, & Karabenick, 2004). Both these areas of focus highlight the importance of continual development. Whilst it was once believed that the ability to further strengthen or develop delayed gratification skills in adulthood was not possible, these techniques show the potential of the brain to learn and expand when nurtured (Casey et al., 2011). Mindfulness allows the 'self' to be and focus, whilst goal-setting provides an opportunity for the 'self' to contemplate what is really needed and within what time-frame, thus producing growth and development in the areas of self-control and willpower.

Another path that needs to be considered when seeking to improve delayed gratification within society is the nature and role that parents play in raising children (Duckworth, Tsukayama, & Kirby, 2013). The skill to delay gratification is a learned behaviour, therefore the ability and opportunity for children to learn or not to learn self-regulation is at the hand of the parental caregivers.

Summary[edit | edit source]

The capacity of humans to self-regulate has many effects on day-to-day life. The ability to self- control, regulate and delay gratification allows humans to successfully conceive and implement plans for the future, interact constructively with others and care effectively for their needs and those of their offspring (Doerr & Baumeister, 2011). This is what enables the human species to live within a socially functional world, it empowers people to overcome selfish impulses for the sake of others (Doerr & Baumeister, 2011).

The research indicates that the ability to postpone gratification is becoming harder to achieve. Yet one-third of all children studied have this ability present between the ages of 3.6 – 5.8 years (Mischel, Ebbesen and Zeiss 1972). Further research into how one-third of the child population holds the key to delay gratification, whilst two-thirds lack this essential survival skill would aid the literature not only in the area of delayed gratification, but also that of obesity and population health. Whilst providing positive parenting guidance for the generation ahead.

Also see[edit | edit source]


External links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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