What we want now vs. what we want later
What we want now and later is often incompatible. Passing by a bakery, we feel an overwhelming urge to get a donut despite the prevailing desire to look beach-ready in the summer. While in a meeting, we fidget at the thought of the upcoming ciggy break – even though we do wish to stay in good health. Once the work day is over, we don’t feel like getting off the couch – and yet the dream of a sculpted body stays strong. In psychology, such situations may be described in terms of immediate and deferred gratification. Immediate gratification entails giving in to the immediately available pleasure, sense of relief or release of tension. Deferred gratification, in turn, means resisting the immediate temptation with a prospect of obtaining a more valuable and lasting reward in the future.
The ability to defer gratification as a key to success in life?
The most famous scientific experiment that popularised the ability to defer gratification and drew attention to its importance in achieving success in life is the ‘marshmallow test’. It is a series of studies that Walter Mischel had conducted since the 1970s onwards, and it all started at the Bing Nursery School in Stanford. The experimenter would give a child one marshmallow and leave, saying that they could eat that marshmallow, but if they resisted temptation and waited until he returned, they would get two marshmallows. The aim of the study was to find out what makes some children able to wait longer when others find it hugely problematic. But it was eventually a different finding that made the ‘marshmallow test’ famous. Years later, it was discovered that children who managed to resist the temptation longer in nursery were more successful in achieving goals in adulthood, were better educated, more successful in relationships, less likely to use drugs, and had a lower BMI.
Can resistance to temptation be taught
Fortunately for all of us, deferring gratification is rather a skill that can be developed, not an ability that we either have or lack. The ‘marshmallow test’ showed that not only did the children differ as regards the final outcome, but also in their behaviour during the test. Those who managed to wait longer avoided looking at the marshmallow, repeated the ‘I’m-waiting-for-two-marshmallows’ resolution, focused on something pleasant, singing and making faces, or imagined that the marshmallow was a puffy cloud instead of a treat. Some of these strategies were used by the children spontaneously, while some were prompted by the researchers. And it turned out that even simple instructions were able to significantly increase the wait time for a bigger reward. So it was possible to influence the ability to wait by changing the way of thinking. An invaluable discovery, indeed, later included in educational programmes.
The ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ systems
The strategies in question refer to the coexistence of two systems within us. The ‘hot’ system – the emotional one – relates to the functioning of the limbic system in the brain, which developed in the early stages of evolution and drives us to immediate action. The ‘cool’ system – or the cognitive one – relates to the prefrontal cortex, which developed later in evolution and is responsible for control and thinking about the future. The effect of our actions depends on which system is more active at a particular moment. The ‘hot’ system will tell us that the donut is freshly baked and smells delicious, while the ‘cool’ one will advise us to take interest in its nutritional value and will calculate that it is 400 calories.
We may think differently about the same things
We tend to think that it’s just ‘the way we are’ that a mere mention of the gym triggers the thought of torture or, quite the opposite, physical activity is a pleasure-booster and a positive driver. However, thoughts and emotions associated with different objects are – at least to some extent – malleable. We have all experienced such shifts. The first ever olives we eat or the first beer we drink seem awful only to have us eagerly reach for them some time later. And something we had always liked, but which at some point caused us some health issues, begins to bear unpleasant connotations. Under the influence of new information and as a result of education, many people change their attitude towards meat or sugar. Our will affects our way of thinking and we are in a position to change it. In order to defer gratification more effectively, our intellect comes into play where emotions naturally rule, and emotions where intellect is often dominant.
How to ‘cool down’ immediate temptation…
Temptation will have less effect on us if we make it less accessible – physically or mentally. Our natural reflex is to reach for whatever is at hand – whether it’s candy in a bowl, chocolate bars at the store checkouts or the open buffet dishes. Limiting exposure removes these things from our sight. However, this is not always possible. If that is the case, it is effective to redirect thoughts to other things or to create temporal distance by invoking a ‘wait five minutes’ or ‘take five breaths’ rule. Focusing on the informational aspects of the temptation is also helpful. Instead of imagining how the candy bar pleasantly melts in your mouth, you can read its ingredients list. Instead of talking about how delicious the cheesecake is, we can ask for the recipe.
…and how to ‘heat up’ a long-term goal
While it is worth extending the distance to the temptation, we should do otherwise when it comes to the goal. What works here is visualising the goal, talking about it, writing it down or leaving notes to self – on the fridge door, for example – to remind us of what we are aiming for. Thinking about a goal, it’s worth focusing not on the information itself, but on the feelings that achieving said goal will evoke – how light you will feel having attained your new figure and how nice it will feel to fit into your new jeans. Also, it is worth looking for attractive elements on the way to your goal, because they are always there. Even if you’re not keen on sports classes as such, you might enjoy meeting other participants, or even the opportunity to leave your phone in the changing room for an hour.
Beware of stress and exhaustion of willpower
All of the aforesaid methods are sometimes easier to do or harder, and that’s because temptation may fall on favourable ground. That is the case when stress factor is at play and triggers the ‘hot’ system. When we feel bad – food, drinks, shopping, television or games ‘promise’ to make us feel better, and often do have that short-lived effect. It appears that our willpower reserves may be depleted. The more self-control we impose on ourselves, the more vulnerable we become to further temptations. Restrictive diets often end in utter binge eating. Therefore, we need to take care of our positive emotions, good management of our willpower resources and… let ourselves indulge sometimes.
We need pleasure
Immediate gratification is not worse by definition. It is good that something stirs up our emotions and is a source of pleasure. Anhedonia – a limited or even no ability to feel pleasure – a state in which nothing seems appealing, nothing brings satisfaction, is a typical symptom of depression. The NETTEL (not enough time to enjoy life) phenomenon is also something to watch out for and it involves a feeling that because of the overwhelming amount of things we have going on there is no time for pleasure, as there is always a thousand things to do. In many cases, it is not the pleasure as such but the excess of it that bears negative consequences.
Are temptation and goal always contradictory
Sometimes, temptation and a long-term goal are contradictory. Smoking a single cigarette can get you off the wagon. Medical advice should be strictly followed. We must say ‘stop’ to whatever is clearly harmful. However, temptations and goals can often be reconciled. Grabbing some chips from time to time does not ruin the dream of a slim figure and health. Food choices are wrongly presented in opposition: either apples and broccoli or donuts and pizza. The lifelong elimination of everything fattening and unhealthy is unattainable for most of us. But if we keep it reasonably balanced, there is room for variety in our life.
How to ‘have your cake and eat it too’
Reconciling the enjoyment of immediate pleasures and the achievement of long-term goals requires not so much the ability to defer gratification, but rather gratification management. We can – and should – allow for a dose of our favourite treats in our plans. Such an approach is favoured by Judith Beck, a therapist and author of The Diet Solution. On her website, she provides an example of a ‘pizza plan’, describing exactly how a pizza fan should eat two slices and stop at that. At first, there is a focus on the taste factor of the pizza, but then a distraction is at play, creating distance and reinforcing the feeling that it is good to stop eating at that point. We can create such plans for our temptations. They may involve reducing the frequency or amount of what we enjoy, imposing temporal restrictions, substituting with other rewards or compensating the temptation with a beneficial activity.
It’s all about balance, and sometimes it’s not worth deferring
Thanks to balance, we don’t have to decide whether to give in to temptation or attain the goal – we can have it all. A situation where impulses take control over us and we are unable to achieve anything in the long run being ruled by them is not good for us. On the other hand, immediate gratification lets us enjoy the pleasures of life as they arise. The skill of deferring gratification, in turn, has a lot of advantages and is worth learning, but nobody would want to live a life based entirely on reasonable deferral. Recent months have also taught us that the possibility of enjoying things is not a given and may be subject to limitations.