How to delay gratification


Can you delay gratification for a bigger payout later?

This post was inspired by Do You Savor or Gobble?, an episode of Freakonomics podcast

In psychology, there has been much research conducted about delaying gratification. Research such as the marshmallow study has shown that the ability to delay gratification is highly correlated with better outcomes in life. The researcher tracked the children in the experiment who could delay gratification for a bigger payout later and found that they were very likely to apply the same tendency to things like education, savings, and taking care of their bodies.

Now, if you were a child who was participating in the marshmallow study, it would be crystal clear that you really unambiguously want to delay consuming that one marshmallow. How do you make sure you don't gobble one marshmallow right away?

It doesn't matter if you actually like to eat marshmallows...

In fact, in the original marshmallow test, the treat didn't have to be marshmallows if the candidates didn't have an appetite for it – the experimenters would give the kids a selection of treats, and they'd get to pick your favorite treat.

There seem to be two psychological tricks you can leverage to achieve the delay of gratification: one is anticipatory utility and the other is to derive immediate rewards by self-reinforcing your (ideal) identity.

Anticipatory utility is a psychological concept introduced by the behavioral economist George Lowenstein. The foundational idea of "utility", which can be traced all the way back to Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, roughly means happiness or benefits, something an individual wants to maximize throughout their lives. However, sometimes people don't only want to think about their utility from what they are consuming at the moment, but also the anticipation of consuming something in the future can provide utility today. Hence the name: anticipatory utility. You get anticipatory utility when you are planning for your vacation: you get excited and think the trip is going to be amazing; then once you are actually there, you start to think about the next vacation you can have in the future. Therefore, if you get good at anticipatory utility, you could easily sit through the test and get two marshmallows or your favorite treats as a reward for delaying gratification.

The other psychological trick you use during such a test is to forge an identity – you don't succumb to the temptation and don't gobble the treat right away because you believe you are a patient and ambitious person. By not settling for just one marshmallow, you feel immediately rewarded because it confirms your identity, and that gives you some present utility.

Whichever strategy you want to choose to maximize your chances to get to the ultimate rewards of the marshmallow study, you need to derive some utility from the waiting – either from the anticipation of what you expect to happen or from the good feeling of reinforcing the identity you want to have.

We even can extend this into the political realm. For policymaking, sometimes long-term solutions require people to be hurt in the short run. That's why long-term thinking is hard and often faced with many difficult trade-offs. My confession to you is that I've been slowly walking you through this mental framework as you read through this article – we can mine the delay-of-gratification research for some useful, prescriptive insights. If we want people to save for retirement or to eat healthily, we need to bridge time and give people some utility today for them to be motivated to get the bigger payout later.

P.S. there have been debates and studies about the marshmallow test really measures the ability to delay gratification, or is it just an index of socioeconomic status.