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Delayed Gratification: Is it Worth the Wait?

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Patience may be a virtue, but just how long are we willing to wait for gratification? We all have long-term goals that we want to accomplish, dreams that we long to fulfill. But, as alluring as these dreams can be, we are often faced with obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals. We still have the bigger picture in mind, so why is it so hard for us to resist these temptations?

In her article, “The Struggles of a Psychologist Studying Self-Control,” Maria Konnikova describes an experiment regarding delayed gratification and self-control that was conducted in the late 1960’s by Walter Mischel, PhD. This study, often referred to as the “Marshmallow Test,” involved a group of children at Bing Nursery School. Each child was presented with two marshmallows, and were told that they could eat one right away, or wait until the researcher returned several minutes later, and eat both marshmallows.

After revisiting the marshmallow test subjects as teenagers, Mischel discovered that the majority of the children who had been able to resist eating the marshmallow right away performed better in school, earned more money, and were living healthier lives. Decades later, Mischel – with assistance from several other colleagues – again tracked down 59 of the subjects, who were then in their 40’s. The researchers tested the subjects once again, this time with a laboratory task assessing self-control in adults. The results showed that the differences in the subjects’ self-control had remained consistent over four decades. (American Psychological Association).

The findings from the marshmallow experiments led Mischel to develop the theory of the “hot-and-cool” system to explain the mechanics of human willpower. The “cool system” focuses on sensations, feelings, actions, and goals. The “hot system” is responsible for quick and impulsive responses to certain temptations. Some people may be more susceptible to hot triggers, which may influence their behavior throughout their lives. Mischel and his colleagues also studied brain activity in some subjects and found that, when presented with tempting stimuli, the prefrontal cortex (the region in control of our ability to make choices) was more active in those with a higher level of self-control, and the ventral striatum (the region that processes our desires and rewards) showed more activity in those with lower self-control. The reasons behind these differences – and whether or not they can be altered – are still unknown. So, is there anything we can do that will help us resist the everyday temptations that prevent us from reaching our goals?

In his article, “5 Strategies for Delayed Gratification and Why You Should Do It,” Brendan Baker describes fives steps we can take to delay gratification:

  1. Know your values – knowing what is important to you will help you make good choices
  2. Know what you want to achieve – understanding your goals will help you focus on them
  3. Create a plan – knowing what you need to do will remind you of the choices you need to make
  4. Prioritize – knowing what you want to achieve will help you resist other temptations
  5. Reward yourself – breaking down your goals and rewarding yourself will help you to stay focused

Delayed Gratification: Is it Worth the Wait?

Delayed Gratification: Is it Worth the Wait?

Alex Lickerman offers another strategy in his article “The Power Of Delaying Gratification.” He emphasizes distraction, saying that to divert our attention from a tempting pleasure we should focus on a different pleasure. He reasons that if you can successfully turn your attention elsewhere until the temptation is gone, then you will be less likely to give into your impulse. (Lickerman, 2012). Mischel proposes another method; changing your perception of the object or action you want to resist. This involves learning how to “cool” the “hot” aspects of your environment. You can do this by putting the object at an imaginary distance, or by re-framing it (consciously associating the object of your temptations with something negative rather than something that will bring you pleasure) .

Mischel’s research demonstrates that, although some people are naturally better at cooling their desires than others, anyone can learn methods to strengthen their self-control. He feels that these skills will allow us not only to delay gratification, but also to make other good choices by avoiding temptations (Konnikova, 2014). So if you’re having trouble staying focused on your goals, consider trying out some of these techniques to help you resist your temptations.

Do you find it difficult to stay dedicated to your long-term goals? Which methods do you feel work best when attempting to delay gratification?


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