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A Core Psychological Principle Debunked? How Important Is Delayed Gratification For Future Success?

Imagine a fairy godmother comes along and offers you a delicious cookie that is magically free of calories. It smells so good! Your mouth is watering. Just as you are about to take it, she says, “Wait! I have another offer. You can either take this cookie now or wait until tomorrow. If you wait 24 hours, I will give you a cookie every single day for the rest of your life.”

It would be very tempting to take the cookie that’s right in front of your eyes (assuming you like cookies). But it would be a much better deal to wait a day and get cookies for the rest of your life. This is the principle of delayed gratification. 

There’s a famous experiment in psychology known as the “marshmallow test,” that was conducted at Stanford University back in the 1970s. The researchers, like fairy godmothers, made offers to preschool children that tested their ability to delay gratification. In one variation, the children were able to eat a marshmallow as an immediate reward, or if they chose to wait, they would get two marshmallows instead of just one.

Researchers conducted follow-up studies on the children for decades. They found key differences in the two groups, between those who waited for the better reward and those who didn’t.

When the children were teenagers, researchers found the “waiting” group had higher SAT scores and were described, by their parents, as more competent. Later, they had fewer mental health, drug use, and weight problems. They were more likely to graduate from college and earn more money. 

It seemed like their being able to resist temptation when they were kids was a strong predictor of their success in later life. But was it really?

A new follow-up study casts doubt on that idea. Scientists found that the kids’ choices in the original experiment did not predict their success when they were in their 40s. There was no difference between the two groups in income, net worth, education, or weight.

This is good news if you were a child who did not have the self-control to wait patiently for rewards. Your impulsive behavior as a preschooler doesn’t doom you to a life of poverty.

Being able to exercise self-control is still an important skill and one that is learnable. Parents can model this trait for their children by keeping their promises and having negative consequences for bad behavior and positive consequences for good.

People of any age can teach themselves to be better at delaying gratification by becoming mindful of their impulsive feelings, setting goals, journaling, and looking for opportunities to practice self-control in their daily lives.

Neuroscience also has some lessons. Two areas of the brain appear to play a major role in delaying gratification – the prefrontal cortex, associated with self-control, and the hippocampus, associated with memory, in this case, the “memory” of the future. Both areas become activated when people merely imagine a bigger and more distant reward. So, when you are faced with a choice between a tempting immediate pleasure and a later reward that is even better, deliberately focus your imagination on the later reward to fire up the supporting parts of your brain.