Psychology and delayed gratification


in Economics, Psychology, Science, Writing

Back in 2009, The New Yorker published an interesting article on psychology and self-control. It describes an experiment in which children were challenged to delay gratification, and then considers what implication their success or failure at such tasks has for their lives. It also describes some of the mechanisms through which people are able to defer an immediate pleasure in favour of a larger one later:

At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”

Perhaps the most useful thing about psychology is the way in which is allows us to learn about the limitations of our own minds. Once we recognize the many flaws in human reasoning, it becomes easier to avoid falling prey to them and being able to manage well in the world.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan October 6, 2010 at 2:56 am

This is interesting, but it unfortunately maintains the stereotype that desire satisfaction is the primary form of satisfaction. Turns out that pursuit satisfaction is much more significant – not achieving goals, but feeling that one is on the way towards achieving them. And, that gives you a totally different interpretation of this “meta-cognition”.

I mean, as things go the idea of meta-cognition is a pretty bad idea – it’s not like thinking about thinking is a different order than thinking generally. It’s not like I go to a different plane when I think about the fact that I’m thinking. I might become a bit more reflexive. But that might be an illusion: try thinking about thinking, and you’ll notice you aren’t – you’re just still thinking. You could try to drive yourself nuts trying to recognize what you’re doing while you’re doing it, but I wouldn’t recommend this.

And, it’s not obvious that the decision to defer pleasure is thinking about thinking anyway – why isn’t it thinking about planning? And why is planning meta-cognition – we do planning all the time, lots of it sub-personally (a more neutral term for sub conscious).

Milan October 6, 2010 at 10:35 am

This is interesting, but it unfortunately maintains the stereotype that desire satisfaction is the primary form of satisfaction.

I don’t think this research does this at all. There seem to be three central claims:

  1. Children who demonstrate self control and an ability to delay gratification end up living lives that are statistically distinguishable from those who cannot
  2. It is possible to teach people how to improve their self control
  3. Doing so might be beneficial for them

All of this seems equally true (or false) whether you focus on satisfaction that arises from satisfying a desire, or whether you focus on satisfaction from pursuing a desire.

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