Do you have trouble waiting to buy things – do you freely spend on impulse purchases? Do you have trouble saving money for a long term project or a product you won’t get for years? If so, you may not be able to delay gratification of your desires.
Delayed gratification is the ability to wait to get something you want.
Believe it or not, the ability to delay gratification has been scientifically studied. The jury is still out as to whether this ability is more genetic or learned.
Scientific studies on delayed gratification.
The New Yorker (The Secret of Self Control) reported that way back in the 1960′s a guy named Walter Mischel, a Stanford professor of Psychology, devised an experiment for 4 – 6 years old to test how long they would delay gratification. He (and his assistants) let them chose their favorite treat (from among a limited selection), then left them alone in a room with it, letting them know that they could go ahead and eat the treat right away, but that if they could wait a few minutes until he came back in the room, they would get two treats.
It was the children who were able to distract themselves and not think about the treat that fared best. Pre-schoolers used a variety of techniques to avoid eating their treat, including covering their eyes so they couldn’t see it or pulling at pigtails or signing songs.
Later, in the 1980′s Mischel (in a follow up study) found that the very same pre-schoolers who were not able to wait did worse on a number of measures, such as struggling in stressful situations, maintaining friendships and even getting lower scores on SAT tests.
Metacognition helps us delay gratification
The treats were a ‘hot stimulus’. Children who were successful in avoiding the hot stimulus were able to delay eating it. They didn’t forget about the treat, they took active measures to avoid thinking about it. They had learned how to distract themselves. As an adult, our hot stimulus might be a new iPad or a cup of Starbucks coffee.
In adults, taking active measures towards self control is called metacognition – thinking about thinking. According to a paper on the University of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education’s site: “Metacognition refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning. Activities such as planning how to approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task are metacognitive in nature.”
If you have a better idea about how self control works, if you have thought about how you are going to approach controlling your impulses (and practiced it), you are able to delay gratification better.
Scientists are still trying to determine if this is genetically based. There appear to be certain areas of the brain that light up when people are practicing self control, and some studies with kids as young as 19 months seem to indicate genetic origins. However, other studies have shown that it can be learned and practiced.
When Mischel and his colleagues showed 4 – 6 year old kids how to picture the treat (a marshmallow in this case) as something else (such as a cloud), kids who previously hadn’t been able to wait now could do so.
What does this mean to us?
It may mean (if it is genetic based) that some of us might be predisposed to self control while others must practice more.
But I think it means we can learn to control impulses that cause us financial harm. We can learn how to distract ourselves when we are tempted off the path we want to follow, and we can practice metacognition – thinking about how we will approach delaying gratification. We can plan how we will circumvent our tendency to spend our entire paycheck (for instance, by removing part of it before we see it through auto invest functionality). We can figure out how we can cut our Christmas gift spending – maybe by setting up a special account and only using it for Christmas.
Parents can help their kids learn to delay gratification. Did yours help you?
Every time you have your child wait for supper instead of having a snack – and help them learn how to think about something else in the meantime (like playing with a toy), you are helping them learn to delay gratification. When you teach them to save up their allowance to buy that toy they want, you are helping them to learn to delay gratification. If parents teach their kids to wait, show them how, and make the wait worthwhile, they are helping their kids learn self control – learn how to delay gratification.
What tricks do you use to enable self-control and delay gratification?