niedziela, 16 listopada 2014

Can you resist the temptation? | Immediate reward vs delayed gratification

Give child a candy and tell him that he’ll receive another one if he doesn’t eat it within less than half an hour. What do you think this kid will do? Will he wait patiently for the second candy or eat the first one immediately? It’s not so easy to resist the temptation even if we know that there’s a greater reward waiting for us in the future. And we’re not even better than children when it comes to delaying gratification…

The “Marshmallow Test

In the late 1960s and early 1970s American psychologist Walter Mischel conducted one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology – the “Marshmallow Test”, which examines delayed gratification (the ability to delay pleasure in time because of the hope for greater profits in the future). The participants of that study (which was conducted at Stanford University) were children age four to six and, as you can guess from the name of that experiment, its main component as well as its tool was marshmallow, which children love. Each of them was given one of that candy, which they could eat immediately (it was lying on the plate just in front of them), or receive another one, only if they would wait for it without consuming the first marshmallow. In other words: there was a reward for those who waited patiently… but how can you resist the temptation and not eat that delicacy when it’s at your fingertips?

If you want to find out how it looked in practice, here’re two contemporary reconstructions of that experiment:

What was the result of the original “Marshmallow Test”? Only one third of those children received the second candy, because they managed to postpone the pleasure. I will come back to that study later in this post, but right now let’s focus on a very important issue, which is…

Immediate reward or delayed gratification?


Do we, adults really differ from children, when it comes to delaying gratification? The standard answer that you can expect to hear from a psychologist is: it depends. Adults have already developed rational thinking, cognitive processes proceed differently (on a higher level) and theoretically it’s easier for them to control themselves… but not as easy as it might seem.

Since childhood parents teach us that delayed gratification pays off, by explaining us why it’s important to save pocket money and collect them in a moneybox. But it’s time for a little confession: how many times did you put your piggybank upside down to pull out some coins? Because it takes some time until it’s full and you just wanted to buy only a small, cheap item, like a pack of chewing gum… and have a pleasure immediately. Or did you smash your piggybank just to pull out and count all those money that were inside… even though it wasn’t even half full? To be honest, I have been taking out coins from my piggybank using a plastic ruler or a metal nail file – it took a while, but I didn’t want destroy it. ;)

And then the years go by, we become adults and we still struggle with delaying gratification…  and what’s even more, we behave like children, often succumbing to the temptations. Do you want any examples? Here they are:
  • We work very hard and after we get payment we immediately rush to the stores for shopping. We buy on impulse, often large quantities of cheaper items, because shopping is pleasant and we need to somehow reward ourselves and even  motivate ourselves to further work. It’s more difficult to delay that immediate gratification and save the money to buy more expensive stuff that we really dream about, such as luxury vacation, a new car, a dream house, secured future. An immediate cash flow is like a marshmallow (from Mishel’s experiment), which quickly gives us a pleasure when used.
  • (referring to the piggybank) Collecting points in loyalty programs. Instead of waiting until there’ll be more points on our card/account and be able to exchange them for something more valuable, we use those point earlier for some trifles. And do we always really need this? I don’t think so.
  • We’re trying to lose weight and want to see the results immediately, so we choose miracle diets that promise ourselves to lose 5 kg per week – and it only ends with a yo-yo effect. The vision of delayed gratification, which is the proper reward in the future, unfortunately doesn’t motivate us sufficiently – it’s easier to agree to bigger discomfort for a shorter period of time, e.g. 2 weeks, than struggle for several months. Along the way there’re many obstacles and discouragements and we just want to see the results and achieve our goal immediately. Dietician would probably call it “exercising willpower”. ;)
  • Establishing collaborations, e.g. bloggers, artists (such as actors) –  beginners are often satisfied with any offer of collaboration that they receive and have problems with waiting patiently for better clients and their offers. They’re glad that they can make money faster… and only a few of them have the strength and patience to wait for better clients and work longer without earning money.
  • Big announcements, surprises and keeping them in secret – sharing great news with the whole world, or at least with those who would be interested to hear about those news is very tempting. We often have problems with keeping our mouth shut because we want to please ourselves by revealing great news or by boasting ourselves. But if we restrain ourselves and delay that pleasure we could make bigger impression and provide a greater pleasure –  both for ourselves and others.

The key for success: self-control


Let’s go back for a moment to the „Marshmallow Test”. Did you notice how children were dealing with resisting the temptation just to receive the promised reward, which was two marshmallows? Those who distracted themselves performed better – they managed to restrain themselves from eating candy, which was in front of them. Mishel decided to check (by conducting follow-up studies) how the participants of his experiment cope in life after they grew up and in adulthood and he discovered that children who delayed gratification achieved bigger success in life, in different areas. Why? Because they had developed better self-control. And this is the key to success – if you can control your impulses and you can resist the temptations you’ll reach the goal that you have established.

And just like the children who were covering their eyes with their hands you can use self-control and try to look for distractors, e.g. instead of reaching for the calorie bomb while you struggle with weight loss, turn on an energetic music that will boost your energy and encourage you to do some physical activity.

If we really care about something even a short period of time may seem to us as an eternity, because waiting is like a torture then. But with time we finally realize that it’s better to make sacrifices and wait longer to achieve goals that really matter to us, instead of settling for something for a while. And when we delay the pleasure for later, there will be rewards for patiently waiting, such as savings, investment in yourself and your future. I think it’s worth waiting, isn’t it? :)

A small pleasure immediately or greater reward in the future – which of these tactics are you more likely to apply in your life? :)

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