Saturday, August 18, 2012

Deferred Gratification....The Significance for Gen Y and everyone else

I interrupt the series on whole grains to post a few articles that were published quite some time ago. Never fear, I promise to post some recipes soon.

     Today’s world has become all about speed. The need or expectation that everything will be done at the click of a button, instantly. Let’s face it, today’s technology has brought down the time we spend on mundane chores like paying bills, banking and shopping. While this may be a good thing, children growing up in this age perceive the world differently. ‘Patience is a virtue’ was a chant we often heard from our elders. Generation X, Y and in future, Z need to develop this not just to function well in life but also to make life smooth for those around them.

     Deferred (or delayed) gratification is the ability to wait to obtain something that one wants. This is now recognised as an invaluable life skill which has consequences for adults of all ages too. This quality determines your ability to stick to long term goals and resist temptation. An inability to delay gratification is closely linked to development of food, drug and alcohol addictions. Such a person acts impulsively, thus making life for others around them difficult.

     It all started with a Stanford behavioural experiment – a researcher sat 4 year old children singly in a room, asked him/her to choose their favourite treat from a tray of sweets and told them that they were going to be left alone with the treat for a few minutes. If they waited till he (the researcher) came back, they would get 2 treats. If they wanted to eat it however, all they had to do was press a bell and the researcher would come back immediately and then they could eat it. This was pure science – no expectations, just to see which mental processes were involved in delaying gratification. What was interesting was only a third of the children held out for those few minutes for double the treat. Most could not resist the temptation to lick, bite or entirely polish off the treat.

     Relevantly, the successful strategies used by the kids who successfully ‘deferred their gratification’ were - distracting oneself, focusing on something else and avoiding looking at or thinking about the treat. These kids held the bigger reward to be more important than immediate gratification. This means these kids (and they were just 4 yrs old) had the cognitive ability to control their thoughts.

     The study would have ended there except for Walter Mischel, the researcher who started what is now popularly known as ‘The Marshmallow Experiment’, having daughters who had also participated in the study along with schoolmates. From their assessment years later of their friends’ academic performance, Mischel realised that the ‘delayers’ were doing much better in academics and socially too. Whereas the kids who couldn’t wait as 4 year olds had difficulty focusing on school work, leading to poorer performance. These children also were less confident socially and exhibited impulsive behaviour. Now, those kids are in their 40’s and still being tracked – the ‘waiters’ are doing better financially, career – wise and socially.

     I’m not going to go into this study in depth – the results and their application in daily life are what I’m dealing with here. Let’s look at these results from a perspective of caring for one’s own well being.  Someone who practises deferred gratification will readily set and fulfil long term health goals, resist the temptation of unhealthy foods and follow an exercise regimen – no matter how challenging -  because of her / his commitment to a positive ‘bigger picture’.

     Someone who’s in for immediate gratification might have difficulty doing all this since he / she would not even be thinking long term – only the ‘now’ matters. Such people have no real control over their life and fail to plan sufficiently for the future.

     The definition of ‘reward’ itself differs from person to person. Let’s look at ‘instant’ rewards – food treats, toys, eye-catching bling that you have to have, that budget breaking luxury car, etc. There are of course many more. How about ‘long-term’ rewards? Life-long wellness and productive golden years? Wealth creation? Building a successful business? Sounds good but also feels like too much hard work is involved - one of the main reasons people take the easy way out.

     From a health perspective, making changes in our eating and lifestyle take time and need to last a lifetime. There has to be a long term commitment to produce results. Once those results (ideal body weight, low waist size, improved fitness and stamina, reduction of risk factors, restoration of health, etc.) are achieved, if you go back to immediate gratification, all your efforts are undone.

This subject is continued in the next post.

An edited version of this article was published in 'Life in Adyar', July 28th, 2012.


  1. That a spark of thoughts there! Looking forward to the second part. Lots of Love. Sonal

  2. Thanks Sonal - do let me know how it's going... :)


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