How easily can you put off getting something you want? This process—delayed gratification—demonstrates the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in favor of a more long-term one later. It’s a concept that was central to a Stanford University social science experiment involving marshmallows. The aptly named Stanford marshmallow experiment, conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s, showed that our ability to delay instant gratification is perhaps one of the most significant skills we learn. Let’s look at the experiment, the unsettling trend toward instant gratification, and how you can become more self-disciplined in this area.
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment
The now-famous experiment tested the ability of young children to delay gratification by presenting them with a marshmallow and giving them a choice to eat it immediately or wait a few minutes to receive a second marshmallow. As each of the 32 children tested sat alone in the observation room with the treat in front of them, some covered their eyes, and others sang. They tried anything to take their minds off the marshmallow. Still, about half of the children gave in, while the other half proved disciplined enough to wait.
Over the next three decades, Mischel and his team regularly checked in with the participants to gauge their lives. The research revealed that those who waited for the second marshmallow tended to have better life outcomes, including higher academic achievement, increased social skills, and a greater sense of well-being. Those who didn’t were more likely to struggle with addiction, impulse control, and unhealthy relationships.
The Rise of Instant Gratification Culture
Social scientists who’ve widely studied this experiment for more than 50 years believe delayed gratification is becoming increasingly rare in American society. They’ve found that children today are less able to delay gratification than in the 1990s. Several factors, including the rise of technology and social media, provide instant gratification at the touch of a button.
Does this mean we’re doomed to continue these trends? Not at all, but the path ahead won’t be easy. In chapter seven of The Everyday Warrior: A No-Hack, Practical Approach to Life, we write, “the modern world has conditioned us with on-demand entertainment, same-day delivery, and credit cards that allow us to buy what we can’t afford. Each time we scroll, eat, play, or shop, we receive a single dose of happiness. These activities cause our brains to release dopamine, the chemical responsible for experiencing joy and pleasure.”
The Work Begins
Although we’re battling a powerful chemical reaction in our brains, an overwhelming amount of research shows that the ability to delay gratification is a skill we can develop. Reversing this trend on a macro level requires enough people to change their behavior. As with all mass movements, it must start somewhere. Why not with us?
Here are three steps to delaying gratification:
- Train: Just as you’d train your body at the gym to strengthen your muscles and stay healthy, train your mind to resist daily temptation. Start small and build to more significant challenges. Maybe you want that new pair of running shoes you see online, and they’re only one click away. Tell yourself that you’ll buy them when you have the extra money, then do something else until the urge passes. The more you do this, the easier it’ll become.
- Five-Minute Rule: When the siren song of instant gratification calls to you, stop what you’re doing and spend five minutes making progress toward your goal. Have the urge to scroll endlessly on social media? If your goal is to read more, put the phone down and pick up a book. Five minutes is such a short amount of time that there’s no excuse not to do it, and you’ll be making progress as you learn to delay gratification.
- Practice Gratitude: When you appreciate what you have, the urge to acquire more diminishes. Take stock of the great things in your life and understand that giving in can delay your goals. Wanting a new car is not a problem (we all want nice things), but if your long-term goal is buying a house, then there are better choices than spending thousands on a down payment at the car dealership. Cultivating the right mindset will reduce the urge for instant gratification.
Hope for Millions
Although it was initially an experiment to test the effectiveness of rewards in delaying gratification, Mischel’s study turned out to be far more consequential. It demonstrated that the skills and habits we develop early in life continue to profoundly impact us throughout adulthood. The later research suggests that it’s never too late for growth, demonstrating that everyone can make better decisions, achieve their goals, and even increase their well-being. It creates a sense of hope for the millions who would have eaten that first marshmallow had they been a child in that study.
This article is an installment of the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior series, which features advice, key interviews, and tips for living a life of consistent impact, continuous growth, and continual learning.
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