In the 1970s the researchers Walter Mischel and Ebbe Ebbesen conducted a test. The test involved marshmallows, pretzels, and pre-schoolers who had been promised a snack. If this test sounds familiar, that is because it is a simple but effective demonstration of how some humans respond to delayed gratification. If it doesn’t sound familiar, the basics of the experiment are that a child is presented with a treat but then told not to eat the treat until the experimenter returns, then they are left alone with the tempting treat left in plain view. Unsurprisingly, many of the young children were unable to resist. However, some children were. In fact, the study revealed that the children’s “delay of gratification significantly depended on their cognitive avoidance or suppression of the expected treats during the waiting period, eg by not having the treats within sight, or by thinking of fun things.” It’s a comical scene that has been recreated and filmed several times since the 70s. YouTube has some adorable videos of kids seemingly in agony as they attempt to master their self-control in the face of the forbidden marshmallow. Are adults much better though? With increased exposure to social media, psychologists are finding that the dopamine hit our brains experience when scrolling is, “rewiring your brain with instant gratification, or the physiological need to experience fast, short-term pleasure.” The real trouble with social media and instant gratification is not just that a specific post gives us this dopamine hit, but that the vast world of pleasures exists so instantaneously as to be nearly simultaneous. Essentially meaning that we’re teaching our brains that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it!
Is it any wonder we experience things like FOMO (fear of missing out), a heightened state of anxiety that stems from an evolutionary need to belong to a tribe? Our evolutionary need is vastly overstimulated. Brain Forest says, “Some studies propose that FOMO is the biggest driver of social media usage while also being associated with lower life and mood satisfaction. Social media makes us more aware of what we’re missing out on, but being constantly in tune with that can spur feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and anxiety. These feelings can force us into a social media cycle as it gives us a false sense of being involved.” A modern marshmallow experiment might mimic the original one from the 70s but also add a social media post about a marshmallow, another with a friend eating a marshmallow, a Youtuber reviewing a gourmet marshmallow, and a song about eating marshmallows playing in the background! It sounds funny, just like those earlier videos of pre-schools with their marshmallows. However, there are dangers to our brains rewiring to expect instant gratification. Expert Dilshan de Silva warns that the developing minds of teenagers are particularly susceptible to the dopamine hit of social media and notes that, “the instant gratification that teenagers experience when people like their posts can backfire. It may eventually lead to depression when they do not receive their desired reaction from an online community.” Adults do not escape the fast-paced gratifications of the modern world and their effects on the brain. Studies have shown, “the ability to resist a desirable immediate treat in favor of a larger delayed one during preschool predicts higher SAT scores and better social competence in adolescence (Mischel et al., 1989; Shoda et al., 1990), and lower obesity rates and substance abuse in adulthood (Ayduk et al., 2000; Schlam et al., 2013).” Also, our ability to delay gratification may indicate a deeper trust issue that can have lasting effects in many areas of our lives. An experiment based on the original Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was recorded by Very Well Mind:
“In a more recent take on Mischel’s famous experiment, cognitive science student Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester took a closer look at this issue of trust. The experiment was essentially the same as Mischel’s, but in half the cases the researchers broke their promise of offering a second treat and instead gave the children just an apology.
When they ran the experiment a second time, the majority of the kids who received the promised treat in the first experiment were once again able to wait in order to receive a second treat. The kids who had been deceived the first time around weren’t willing to wait this time—they ate the marshmallows almost immediately after the researchers left the room.”
A professional coach can discuss with you the characteristics that might lead to a lack of delayed gratification and what methods might help you master your self-control.
Ultimately experts agree that the best way to work on our self-control is to slow our brains down, unplug, and focus. Researchers acknowledge that not all delayed gratification is necessary, but that the aim should be self-regulation, or having the self-control and self-made boundaries to know when one should give in to temptation and when one should hold back. Meditation is a great solution to the overstimulated state of being that drives our desire for instant gratification. Some studies have found that “using neuroimaging techniques have shown that meditation improves activation and connectivity in brain areas related to self-regulation, and these findings may provide an opportunity to examine remediation of mental disorders in a new light.” An article published in 2014 looks at how meditation and mindfulness help us to understand our emotional responses better so we’re less reactionary and more purpose-driven in all areas of our lives: “despite the common misconception that meditation “empties our head” of emotions, mindfulness actually helps us become more aware and accepting of emotional signals—which helps us to control our behavior.” Headspace says, “Awareness and acceptance play a key role in executive control, our capacity to inhibit impulses. Mindfulness gives us the tools to acknowledge distracting thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental way (“I realize that I am craving a piece of cake right now”), which makes us better equipped to resist them. So, acknowledging and accepting the pang of guilt you may feel as you’re about to take a bite can help you overcome the impulse.” How might those children have faced their task if they were taught to gently acknowledge their desires and work through them? How might they problem-solve instead of reacting emotionally and impulsively? How might you accomplish your goals if you used meditation to increase your self-control and delay that urge for instant gratification?