Delayed gratification and the science of self-control

The New Yorker has a fantastic article on the psychology of delayed gratification and how tempting kids with marshmallows allowed us to understand the life-time impact of self-control.

The piece focuses on the work of psychologist Walter Mischel who invented a test for children where they’d be presented with a marshmallow but told they could have two, later on, if they just waited.

It was an early demonstration of the power of temporal discounting – some kids ate the marshmallow, about a third waited and cashed in their patience for bigger rewards – but this wasn’t, in itself, particularly earth-shattering news.

What was most surprising was that years later, when Mischel followed up the kids in his experiment, the ones who waited, who could delay their gratification, turned out to be more successful in life – better jobs, better exam results, less drug addiction and so on.

This and subsequent research has led us to believe that the ability to delay gratification for better rewards in the future is a fundamental skill in success, probably because it looks at how emotions and motivations interact with a more rational appproach to reasoning. We know what’s best, but can we keep temptation at bay to reach it?

The article is a compelling exploration of this key ability and the subsequent research that has sprung up around it to help explain how we manage to keep those cheap instant hits at bay.

There’s also a great observation in the piece where the author, science writer Jonah Lehrer, describes Mischel as someone who “talks with a Brooklyn bluster and he tends to act out his sentences”.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Don‚Äôt! The secret of self-control’.

2 thoughts on “Delayed gratification and the science of self-control”

  1. It would be interesting to take the next step as well….
    How well is ability to delay gratification correlated with various pathological behaviours like OCD, depression, borderline personality disorder …?
    My guess is the answer will be high, if not higher than the correlation with measures of “success”.

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