Have you ever found yourself wavering while deciding between the value of saving some extra cash or spontaneously spending it on a whim that would bring short-term pleasure? The consequences of each can, and perhaps should, be weighed and measured. In the illustration shown, a young man holds his earnings and pauses to decide between the immediate gratification of purchasing goods and the long-term satisfaction of savings that have been building over time. He is faced with the questions, should I spend or save? Should I reward myself with a short-term treat or delay gratification, knowing that the long-term benefits of saving will serve me well?
The practice of anticipating consequences, both short and long-term, helps minimize the chances of decisions backfiring and producing ill effects. Taking time to anticipate consequences can minimize the unintended consequences that will occur.
The famous “Marshmallow test” with young children, conducted by Stanford psychologists Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen, drew important conclusions regarding delayed gratification and immediate rewards. The researchers found that preschool children who delayed the gratification of immediately taking and eating a marshmallow were described more than 10 years later as adolescents who were significantly more competent in a number of areas. In a later study, they were even found to have higher SAT scores than the instantaneous marshmallow-eaters.
More recently, in 2018, conceptually replicated studies conducted by NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan & Hoanan Quan broadened the pool of young subjects to include children from diverse backgrounds and families. Their findings suggest a child’s tendency to delay gratification by holding out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background. A child’s background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what is behind a child’s long-term success.
The causal complexity that underlies the ability to delay gratification is multi-faceted. Other possible explanations cited by Jessica McCrory Calarco, in an article in The Atlantic, entitled "Why Rich Kids Are So Good at the Marshmallow Test". The article discusses reasons poorer children would be less motivated to wait before getting a second marshmallow because of possible food insecurity and the anxiety hunger brings when food or basic needs are scarce. She contends that affluence, not willpower, could be the cause for some children’s ability to delay gratification.