Can You Learn to Delay Gratification?

by Marie on March 14, 2012 · 14 comments

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?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 krantcents March 14, 2012 at 10:41 am

When I was young, my mother had me save for things. As an adult, I do more research or buy online which is a delay in itself. Getting the lowest price is the goal.


2 Marie at March 14, 2012 at 3:28 pm

We had to save for things as kids too. Mom and Dad just didn’t supply anything. I even saved up for my first bicycle (used).


3 MyMoneyDesign March 14, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Those were some interesting experiments. I have delay gratification by default because I obsess about finding the best sale or comparison shopping before I buy something. We really try to emphasize this with our children by making them save their money towards a goal (usually a toy they want) and waiting until the weekends for certain outings (like movies, park trips, etc.). It gives them something to look forward to every week.


4 Marie at FamilyMoneyValues March 14, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Let your kids see you delaying your own desires as well! I think it sinks in.


5 Dollar D @ The Dollar Disciple March 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm

The psychology of gratification is an interesting topic to me. I like the term “metacognition” a lot! Thanks for that.

What we do when we want to buy something, like a DVD or a book, is put it on a list with the date. We go back every once in a while and look at the list, and if we still want to buy it after a month has passed, then we go ahead and do it.

9 times out of 10, we end up not buying it :)


6 Marie at March 14, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Sounds like a good plan!


7 Karunesh March 15, 2012 at 12:11 am

find a friend who has delay gratification by default and ask him to buy for you.


8 Marie at FamilyMoneyValues March 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm



9 Karunesh March 16, 2012 at 3:01 am

researching about a product does cause a delay in buying. And that delay is essential other wise we may end up paying more.
one of the best way to research is to ask people who have experience with those products. Many people ask there parents before they buy a house or a car. many times we ask a well informed friend before buying a new phone or laptop


10 Shaun @ Money Cactus March 15, 2012 at 7:10 am

I find that researching things for long enough gives me the time to make a reasonable decision about whether or not I really need the thing I desire. I’m getting better at it with practice ;)


11 Marie at FamilyMoneyValues March 15, 2012 at 5:07 pm

I do a lot of research as well, but I usually get so tired of looking around that I end up doing nothing.


12 Karunesh @ March 17, 2012 at 5:43 pm

I found your post very helpful. I have linked your post at my website weekly roundup


13 Jennifer March 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Interesting post! I’d love to see a follow-up on how to handle delayed gratification issues in a group setting. When you’re working as part of a team, those issues can pop up more than you’d think — but lecturing the more impulsive group member can be destructive to the working relationship.


14 Marie at FamilyMoneyValues March 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Lectures seldom work in any setting!


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