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Our Delayed Gratification Era

A shopper walks through downtown Seattle Wednesday, April 29, 2009. (AP)

Forty-plus years ago, psychologists sat kids down in front of a tasty marshmallow to see who could wait the longest before grabbing and eating when the prize was double the treat.

Years later they looked back, and guess what? The kids who could wait were far more successful in many aspects of life.

Now that America is on a forced march from the “instant gratification society” to a world of delayed gratification, that science is turning heads again.

This Hour, On Point: we’ll look at willpower and winners in the new American economy.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Science writer Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired, and author of “How We Decide” and “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.” His new piece, in this week’s New Yorker, is “Don’t! The secret of self-control.”

Psychologist Walter Mischel is a professor at Columbia University, and author of “Personality and Assessment.” He pioneered the “marshmallow experiments” in the 1960’s, which studied delayed gratification and self-control in children.

Economic historian Richard Sylla is a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of “The American Capital Market: 1846-1914″ and “A History of Interest Rates.”

More links:

Listen to Radiolab’s take on “Mischel’s Marshmallows”

Here’s ABC’s version of the marshmallow experiment, with M&M’s and the Dilley Sextuplets:

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  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I’ll be very interested to hear if there’s a parallel between kids who have the self-control to wait for more M&Ms and adults who wait for more money to accumulate before buying things they can’t afford right now. Credit cards (virtual money) have changed the equation (in a bad way).

  • Nancy

    I wonder if it’s not thrift exactly but the notion of conservation, in terms of conserving resources, that we are heading towards. Hopefully.

  • howard

    What is the relation between self-control and meditation?

  • Mari

    Fascinating. I would like to know what happens to the kids who never get a marshmallow, no matter how long they wait. Was this sort of experiment conducted, as well, or was it deemed too sadistic?

    “Four decades of narcissism”, as Tom puts it, have deprived many people of delayed gratification, regardless of how hard they work or the degrees of self-control that are brought to bear. The folks who got there first have devoured the whole bag of figurative marshmallows, rapidly, in a greedy feeding frenzy.

    Just look at the hollowing out of Medicare and Social Security, for example. We lower-end boomers can pay in for many decades, wait endlessly and still get the short end of the stick.

    Does Dr. Mischel have any comment about this?

  • Kim

    I find every time I want to spend I go to my music and practice. Much more satisfying!

  • Cindy

    Parenting from birth must have something to do with this. To teach a puppy to behave when someone comes to the door, you distract them til you have the behavior you require. To shape behavior requires reward at very specific moments. Since we have learned more about the wiring changes in the brain, those first years seem more & more critical. I wonder if day care at 6 weeks is an advantage or disadvantage for delayed gratification.

  • Ert

    Isn’t the proliferation of online shopping over the last decade evidence of an ability to delay gratification? Shoppers wait days for their purchases to arrive so that they can get a better deal or avoid sales taxes, when in many cases they could just go down to the store and have it immediately.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    If the last caller before Walter did not have a credit card, she might not have bought that stuff at Target. Putting the actual cash on the counter might have been a deterrent.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Ert: Of course, Amazon and Apple having “One click” buying offsets the shipping time; we can buy things (with a credit card) with a single click.

  • Ellen Dibble

    The impulsive child has a connection to spontaneity and self that might be pretty important. Adults and nerds of all ages have difficulty even knowing what they really feel. It’s not about having the candy; it’s about being real.
    The economics of our circumstances — I guess if so many people (and the government) borrowed, then all money will be worth less. Boom, the balloon is a croquet ball.
    So I expect inflation will transpire (and taxes rise), and people who bought necessities in the good days (depending on earning capacity) will be very happy that they did.

  • Gala

    My mother is still living the same way she did for the last five years – spending, spending, spending.

    Her philosophy is – I may die tomorrow and won’t get to enjoy this today.

    And there is no way to change her mind, she just doesn’t listen to me.

    As a result of her attitude towards money, I had to learn to budget and save on my own, way later in life than I should have.

    Thank you

  • http://riseupliving.com Caitrin

    My husband and I have been living frugally for about 7 years. I grew up with love through objects, so abstaining from buying was VERY difficult for me.
    BUT, it is much easier now, and I no longer rely on things to make me feel whole. I am not passing that onto my children; I don’t want to raise consumers who equate objects with happiness, and this huge desire that is an uncontrollable hunger.
    I wonder though, if everyone in this country lived like us, what would happen to our country?
    If the world lived like that what would happen to the world? I see its benefits, ecologically, but how do we support the economy?
    When ideas equal $ does that work out, or does it get us into trouble?

  • http://www.cabiriajacobsen.com Cabiria


    I am a classical/jazz singer here in Somerville, and a friend of mine is making pretty good money as a consultant. She is someone who shops as a pass time, and it never bothered me until recently when I asked her if she’d like to go see Alvin Ailey with me while they were in town. Her response was “I really shouldn’t spend that kind of money.” This is someone who started a dance company in college, loves modern dance, and would experience true satisfaction and pleasure seeing the Alvin Ailey company. I’d love to hear what the guests have to say about the role of short-term vs. long-term pleasure responses. Have we gotten addicted to the short-term high of a new pair of pants, when what might make us happier is an evening of art?

    Cabiria Jacobsen

  • Betsy

    Succeeding in our educational system requires the skill of delaying gratification (as the guest mentioned, wanting to watch TV but deciding instead to study, etc.) However our tertiary educational system – especially graduate education – also *develops* those self-control “muscles” in those who elect to pursue advanced degrees. Not only do grad students have to spend years working on a thesis or dissertation before being rewarded with the degree, but for those four or five years they’re in grad school, grad students also have a much lower standard of living than their peers who go straight to work after college. I well remember my own relative poverty in grad school and I think that it trained me to resist buying consumer items I don’t need. Even now I am much more frugal than most people I know.

    I am curious how much this unintended side effect of grad school contributes to the higher standard of living enjoyed by those with advanced degrees.

  • Sasha Smith

    In the marshmallow experiment the kids were given good advice — pretend it’s a cloud — often used it, & to good effect. But in real life people are often resistant to good advice that would help them forego immediate gratification & obtain long-term benefit. Can you comment on what controls the higher-order judgment that people make about whether or not to pay attention to good advice about how to reach our goals?

  • http://www.heritagestrategy@wordpress.com Edwin Gardner

    It’s fortunately not actually a choice between immediate gratification vs. its opposite; it’s a choice between one kind of gratification vs. another. In the Great Depression the feds built many national and state parks,and the rationale was that out of work people would receive healthy satisfaction and a sense of just being glad to be alive by visiting public parks that were free for them to enjoy. It was a very successful concept and still works for us today. I am a recreation planner,and I’m hearing about a major initiative afoot at the national level – with the blessing of the new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to replicate that model, by helping the public learn again to enjoy the richness of their opportunities to have fun for free, whether by hiking and biking, or playing sports, or fishing, or just sitting and staring at a beautiful view. It’s always more realistic in human terms to substitute a healthier form of pleasure for one that’s less healthy, and this turn toward outdoor recreation involves just that kind of substitution. As the authors of the book Nudge point out, the default mode can be changed by simply making it easier to maker a better choice. We hear that Obama has been strongly influenced by the premise of that book, so this is a strategy that seems to fit his preferred MO.

  • Joanna Drzewieniecki

    Human beings — Americans included — are incredibly adaptable. If you look at all the places in the world where people have suddenly had to adapt to all kinds of terrible circumstances, you will find that almost everyone adapts almost overnight. Also, we should keep in mind that self-preservation is a vastly stronger instinct than self-gratification. When really hard times hit, the instinct for self-preservation (and family preservation) takes over very quickly.

  • Mari

    I can relate to what you are observing in your mom. Many elder folks I know (60 years and up) think and behave the same way.

    The “I may die tomorrow, might as well rack up debt today” mentality is much more common in people my parent’s age (who get all their medical care on the house and collect a monthly SS check, too) than it is in my own peer group.

    Of course, my parents had most everything given to them by their parents- houses, clothing, etc- well into adulthood. They didn’t have to work very hard or wait too long for their desires to be manifested, materially.

    My own generation was not treated so generously. We were sent off to work early, never given an allowance as kids, had to pay for our own educations (if we could manage it) and now we watch in despair as the rest of the American Dream Pie goes into the bellies of those who are stuffed to the gills, already.

    Personally, I think many elder Americans are “spoiled brats”. Plain and simple. The anti-social component of
    not caring about how much they leave behind, in terms of debt when they die, is truly chilling.

  • William

    I am curious to know Dr. Mischel’s thoughts on the diagnosis of ADHD which has become somewhat ubiquitous in our culture since his marshmallow experiments. Has he attempted to separate out these children who may carry this diagnosis in his experiments? What is his opinion of the treatment of attentional issues with stimulant medications and does he believe we are ultimately doing more harm or good?

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    What is the connection (or lack thereof) between self-control and creativity (or lack thereof).

    Seems to me that too much self-control might get in the face of going with your gut, following your instincts and being creative.

  • Greg

    Part of the problem with the “I want it now” impulse is we confuse credit with money, and we are not diligent enough to keep track. If we need something, put it on the credit card! And we’re shocked when the bill arrives, because we didn’t do the math, and we don’t have the money to pay it.

    As I’m fond of saying, I didn’t marry into money; I married into money management. My wife and I enter all credit card receipts into our bank checkbook, so we always know how much we have to spend. It takes more time, but we’re never shocked when the credit card bills arrive.

  • lisa

    Where do we get more information on finding & applying these methods to our lives? I feel like I could address so many personal issues – spending, weight, poor choices, learning strategies, etc. I like gratifying activities & need feedback

  • Don

    I recollect (perhaps wrongly) that Marcuse wrote of “repressive de-sublimation” where individuals buy products rather than dealing with their underlying problems.

    An example would be where someone is unhappy with their job decides to buy some expensive toy, e.g. an off-road vehicle. This provides some respite from the problem at the cost of incurring debt limiting the ability to change their condition.

    It is repressive because society wants its citizens to be compliant drones not challenging their social condition nor the the ways it is organized.

  • Barbara

    I would be interested in Tom taking this topic further since no one addressed the way that gratification, whether instant or delayed, is tied up with a mentality of poverty and deprivation. If anything the program this morning supported that mentality.

    Until we make a fundamental shift in our understanding that abundance does not always mean more stuff, that it can mean an abundance of space and time and freedom from the culture driven attitude that our worth is determined by our financial wealth and property, we are doomed to feel deprived with less.

    We don’t have to live in rags and hovels but less is more. It does take self discipline and courage and time to resist impulse and find the emotional relief that comes with it. I am optimist that the current economy is an opportunity for some people to understand that less can be more.

  • Rachel

    There was talk about humans’ ability to change and adapt, and I agree. My worry is that it is harder to get an entire nation to change and adapt, especially when it seems like a regression to earlier values and ideas.

    Will the United States be able to reform from the position we are now? Or will the resistance we now face cause us to crumble and require us build from scratch? Is that where we are headed?

  • Lucy

    So we should all become “savers” and not spend any money? No thanks. I already tried that. While my sister spent her inheritance on a $70,000 kitchen, I “the saver”, put it in my retirement fund. Now that money is worth $40,000 and she’s sitting in a nice remodeled kitchen. My kitchen is 50 years old, but since I delayed gratification, I was rewarded with exactly what?

  • ThresherK

    I have my doubts about applying one idea on the personal scale to an entity as a whole, whether it’s “America”, “the economy”, “consumers” or “kids today”. It reminds me of an old Doonesbury where “Wall Street” in the form of a person was before Congress on the subject of tax writeoffs for business entertaining, and had to be bribed with martinis to feel productive enough to finish its testimony.

    But, if we are going to extrapolate:

    If it weren’t for easy credit or mortgage refinancing available to regular folks (under dodgy long-term prospect, often), wouldn’t the recession have started months or years earlier?

    And as far as an example of delayed gratification goes, how about the tens of millions of Americans in the working and middle classes who watched corporate profits, executive salaries, and the stock market go up during the last expansion, but when they asked for raises, were told “You’re lucky to have a job” by a corporation or “wage increases for commoners will make America less competitive with (Chinese slave labor or other threat inserted here)” by about all of the mainstream media?

    (PS: I was in and out of radioshot during the program, so I don’t know if these subjects were covered.)

  • Ruthann Liagre

    Very interesting experiment and discussion. I am most hopeful that what is happening in the world economy brings us back to paying attention to the truly Important and satisfying things in life. I beg to differ with one of the speakers who referred to our current state as one of scarcity. Scarcity is a mindset. Consumerism does not equal abundance. More “things” do not translate to a more satisfying life. There is abundance in our world that is overlooked by those of us consumed with the next bright, shiny toy.

  • Linda A

    Thank you for a timely and interesting discussion today. I see so much relevance for this topic in almost all areas of modern life, and it seems that delayed gratification…self-control…prioritizing…could really be the key to solving many of the problems that happen in our times. Ha–does that make me a libertarian?!

    As a parent of two little girls (not yet four years old, as in the marshmallow experiment), I will be curious to watch my kids’ personalities develop, and I plan to try to parent them in a way that will encourage the qualities of “distraction” that Prof. Mischel talked about. Being able to control oneself in the face of temptations such as marshmallows and credit cards will take them a long way in life.

  • Maureen

    I found this conversation interesting, but I think we need to remember that many people to do not enter credit card debt because they are buying luxuries and vacation homes, but paying for grocery bills and doctors’ visits.

    I can’t help but wonder if a more important conversation would have been over the fact 17 percent of children under the age of five in the U.S. are now at risk of hunger?

    It seems ever easier to discuss abundance than depravity–for even the decision to “buy less” and “save up” is coming from a point of privilege; what we don’t hear are from those for whom neither is an option.

    On a final note, I agree with Don’s comment that unresolved issues can drive purchasing. Another thing to consider, perhaps, is that there are few public places that are non-commercialized. Look into any coffee shop at 11 p.m.–at least in my city–and it’s nearly full. As I think these people have wireless and tea at home, I suspect what they are seeking is human contact. Too often we have only commercial–and now corporate–spaces left to fulfill our need to socialize.

  • Joy

    Very interesting. I can see the change in recreational shopping will be good for us, our families and our health, but don’t forget the many of us who are already sick of consumerism and the marketing associated with it.It is refreshing to not buy something.
    I see in my work that people are facing poverty and food insecurity and still spending money on Walstuff. The money is running low, the poor getting poorer, and tv time is still an average of 2 hours a day for children. The marketing is still powerful and effective.

  • http://onpointradio Joan

    I am sure the WTC was full of people who delayed gratification up until the morning of 9/11. People who endured horrendous commutes, worked absurdly long hours, and always found reasons to put off their much-needed vacations. And then a plane flew into the building, and they had to choose a window to fall from.

  • http://It’slikelytheresultsmirrorourownadultself-controlabilities CoventryLeague.com

    It would be nice to review a study of adults’ self-control, particularly with some executives of under-performing businesses…

  • david

    This was a subject I learned 30 years ago in college. It was one thing that really stuck with me over the years.

  • Jusstincase

    Joan…for get it your not worth the response. Enjoy your trailer…

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