Building the capacity for delayed gratification
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
In the 1970s researchers at Stanford University conducted an experiment on kindergarten age children that subsequently became known as the marshmallow experiment. Children from age three to five were grouped and placed in a room with a treat they particularly liked—a marshmallow, pretzel, or cookie—and were made the promise that if they waited 15 minutes to eat it they would be given a second treat, and if they didn’t wait that long no further treat would be coming.
The researchers left the children alone with the treat and observed their behavior.
The majority of children attempted to delay gratification by waiting, hoping to be rewarded with a second treat. Some succeeded in waiting the full 15 minutes. The children did any number of things to help them in their quest—covering their eyes, turning away, making distracting movements.
A smaller number of children ate the treat just as soon as the adults left the room.
Follow up studies conducted at intervals years down the road showed a correlation between how long the children could delay gratification while they were small and their success on the SATs, their ultimate education attainment, body mass index and other measures of success and well-being.
On the one hand, these insightful studies are relatively good news (and comfort the increasingly small number of people espousing the Protestant work ethic) because they show that there is a clear variable we can focus on the improve our lives and the lives of our children. On the other hand, they are a bit discouraging because they also show that this variable has a certain set point that is established very early in life.
What if you would have been one of the kids to scarf down the marshmallow the moment no one was looking?
Studies and brain scans conducted by Doctor Daniel Amen also show that compulsive behavior is linked to low activity in the cingulate gyrus while lowered activity in the prefrontal cortex, where your brain’s rational regulatory capacity is largely located, is linked to compulsivity and difficulty delaying gratification.
In other words, it’s your brain, stupid. And the brain, like the mind, is malleable, it can be trained and through training its structures and processes change.
This is probably of interest to almost all of us because delaying gratification—and thereby reaping greater long-term rewards—is getting harder as our environment encourages instant gratification on an unprecedented scale. For me the presence of the Amazon app on my phone, immediate access to the latest news on the internet, and the ubiquity of cheap, tasty and immensely unhealthy food are a source of potentially constant temptation.
Thankfully, there are things we can do at any age to gain control of our impulses and stretch our power of delaying gratification:
1. Take your omega 3s. Researchers from Georgetown University and Penn State found that long-chain omega 3 fatty acids improved impulse control in adolescents—and presumably the rest of us too. Get those DHAs and EPAs. As a vegan I take omega 3s derived from algae.
2. Eliminate alcohol and most caffeine. Alcohol dampens the prefrontal cortex in the short term and weakens it in the long term. It is a central nervous system poison. It destroys the liver and damages other organs, including the heart. No one has an alcohol deficiency and without a doubt everyone would be better off consuming less, and even better off consuming none. Caffeine is a blood vessel constrictor and diminishes blood flow the brain. While a little green tea has many positive benefits including providing some protection from cancer, coffee is an unnecessary burden on the brain.
3. Make sleep a priority. Inadequate sleep decreases blood flow to the brain, is linked to binge eating and carbohydrate cravings, and mood disorders and poor judgement. It’s recently been reported that Roger Federer sleeps 12 hours a day. Twelve hours. The neuroscientist quoted in the linked article calls sleep a performance enhancing drug. It’s also neurochemical regulator and the most accessible method we have to gain greater control over our lives. Make sleep a priority, and if possible, find time during the day for cat naps for improved brain function.
4. Eat a nutrient dense, low fat, low sugar diet. It probably isn’t surprising that a high fat, high sugar diet leads to loss of impulse control.
5. Practice a discipline. Whether it’s writing every day or running or doing yoga, creating a habit and practicing it to achieve results will have knock on effects in other areas of life. Starting small and gradually building it out is a popular approach and one I find particularly effective. So instead of starting out with the goal of writing 1000 words a day, shoot for 100. Build a running practice up from five minutes a day. Start so small that it doesn’t even feel like a challenge and let it go from there.
6. Nothing regulates and improves our brains like meditation. Meditation leads to physical changes in the brain over time, all of which significantly improve our lives. Among other things meditation improves self control and helps us overcome addictions. To be honest, it’s kind of crazy not to meditate.
7. Cut out screen time. Most people probably don’t need to be told, but social media, video games, YouTube and the internet in general are destroying our attention, draining our capacity to feel pleasure and are addictive—that is, they cultivate our impulsive and therefore self-destructive potentials. Social media is, for the most part, empty and a poor substitute for real interaction. The most sophisticated video game ever created is repetitive and asinine. When this age has passed people will look back on us and wonder how we could have been so stupid as to get sucked into these brain destroying technologies. Just say no, one small step at a time—or one big one.
Whether you would have been the kid with the self-control to wait out the 15 minutes to earn the second treat or the one who munched on the marshmallow the moment you were left alone, a greater capacity for delaying gratification will lead to a happier, more fulfilling, more successful future. Small steps can get us all there.