Delayed Gratification and Impulse Control

Delayed gratification involves the ability to wait to get what you want. Learn more about why delaying gratification can often be so difficult as well as the importance of developing impulse control.

What Is Delayed Gratification?

What do you do at the annual company Christmas party when you encounter platters of delicious and tempting foods when you are trying to lose weight? If you give in and fill up your plate with goodies, it might derail your diet, but you will get to enjoy a bit of instant gratification.

If you manage to resist and spend the evening eating salad and munching on carrot sticks, then you will presumably receive an even greater reward down the line—shedding those unwanted pounds and being able to fit into your favorite pair of jeans.

This ability to resist temptation and stick to our goals is often referred to as willpower or self-control, and delaying gratification is often seen as a central part of this behavior. We put off what we want now so that we can perhaps get something else, something better, later on.

Choosing a long-term reward over immediate gratification poses a major challenge in many areas of life. From avoiding a slice of chocolate cake when we are trying to lose weight to staying home to study instead of going out to a party with friends, the ability to delay gratification can mean the difference between achieving our goals or not. Do you have the ability to resist and receive a later—and even better—reward?

Researchers have found that this ability to delay gratification is not just an important part of goal achievement. It might also have a major impact on long-term life success and overall well-being.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

In a classic psychology experiment from the 1970s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel placed a treat in front of children and offered them a choice. They could either enjoy the treat now or wait a brief period of time in order to get two snacks.

When the experimenter left the room, many of the kids immediately ate the treat (often a pretzel or marshmallow), but some of the kids were able to put off the urge to enjoy the treat now and wait for the reward of getting two delicious goodies later on.

What Mischel discovered was that the kids who were able to delay gratification had a number of advantages later on over the kids who simply could not wait. The children who had waited for the treat performed better academically years later than kids that ate the treat right away. Those who delayed their gratification also displayed fewer behavioral problems and later had much higher SAT scores.

Why Is It So Hard to Wait?

So if the ability to control our impulses and delay gratification is so important, how exactly can people go about improving this ability?

In follow-up experiments, Mischel found that using a number of distraction techniques helped children delay gratification more effectively. Such techniques included singing songs, thinking about something else, or covering their eyes.

Delaying gratification isn't always so cut-and-dried in the real world, however. While the children in Mischel's study had the promise of a secondary reward for waiting just a short period of time, everyday scenarios don't always come with this guarantee. If you give up that brownie, you still might not lose weight. If you skip a social event to study, you still might do poorly on the exam.

It is this uncertainty that makes giving up immediate rewards so difficult. That delicious treat in front of you now is a sure thing, but your goal of losing weight seems much further off and not so certain. 

In an article appearing in Cognition, neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire of the University of Pennsylvania suggest that our uncertainty about future rewards is what makes delaying gratification such a challenge. "The timing of real-world events is not always so predictable," they explain.

"Decision-makers routinely wait for buses, job offers, weight loss, and other outcomes characterized by significant temporal uncertainty." In other words, we don't know when these long-term rewards will arrive—or even if they will ever arrive.

While going for the immediate reward is often viewed as a loss of self-control and giving in to temptation, it can actually represent a rational action in cases where a promised reward is uncertain or unlikely, McGuire and Kable suggest.

Trust Is a Critical Factor 

Whether or not you are willing to wait might depend a lot on your worldview. Do you wait for something if you aren't sure it will ever really happen? Do you have faith in your abilities to make things happen or trust that your goals will come to pass?

In a more recent take on Mischel's famous experiment, cognitive science student Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester took a closer look at this issue of trust. The experiment was essentially the same as Mischel's, but in half the cases the researchers broke their promise of offering a second treat and instead gave the children just an apology.

When they ran the experiment a second time, the majority of the kids who received the promised treat in the first experiment were once again able to wait in order to receive a second treat. The kids who had been deceived the first time around weren't willing to wait this time—they ate the marshmallows almost immediately after the researchers left the room.

Increase the Ability to Delay Gratification

Some strategies that might help you improve your ability to delay gratification include:

Give Definitive Time-Frames

In a situation where people are not sure when they will receive an expected reward, giving feedback on just how long they will have to wait can be beneficial. Train stations might post wait times, for example, while teachers might give students a definitive deadline for when students will receive a promised reward.

Set Realistic Deadlines

When trying to achieve a goal, such as losing weight, people are sometimes prone to setting either unrealistic deadlines or benchmarks. For example, a person trying to lose weight will set himself up for failure if he makes a completely unrealistic goal of losing 10 pounds per week.

When he fails to lose those first 10 pounds, he might then give up and give in to temptation. A more realistic goal of one pound per week would allow him to see the real results of his efforts.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares an exercise that can help you introduce a healthy habit into your life or get rid of a bad habit that's been holding you back.

A Word From Verywell

Delaying gratification certainly isn't easy in most cases, especially if we are not sure if the sought-after rewards will ever happen. But researchers have found that this ability to put off our immediate desires to pursue long-term goals just might be a critical part of success.

While you might not always be able to resist instant gratification, trying a few new strategies, and working on your willpower is certainly worth the effort.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Mischel W, Ebbesen EB. Attention in delay of gratificationJ Pers Soc Psychol. 1970;16(2):329–337. doi:10.1037/h0029815

  3. Mischel W. Processes in delay of gratificationAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology. 1974;7:249-292. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(08)60039-8

  4. McGuire JT, Kable JW. Decision makers calibrate behavioral persistence on the basis of time-interval experience. Cognition. 2012;124(2):216-26. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.008

  5. Kidd C, Palmeri H, Aslin RN. Rational snacking: Young children's decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition. 2013;126(1):109-114. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.08.004

  6. Gelinas BL, Delparte CA, Hart R, Wright KD. Unrealistic weight loss goals among bariatric surgery candidates: The impact on pre- and postsurgical weight outcomes. Bariatric Surgical Practice and Patient Care. 2013;8(1). doi:10.1089/bari.2013.9999

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."