Delay of Gratification

I have tremendous amounts of willpower.  Clinicians and researchers call this “delay of gratification,” and it has been studied in young folks and correlated to certain behaviors as adolescents and adults.

When I was little, I remember being given Oreo cookies and eating them the same way every time.  You can tell a lot about a person by the way they eat their Oreos.  For me, I would twist the two cookies apart and then look to see which cookie had more frosting on it.  Then, I would eat the cookie with the least amount of frosting on it, saving the delicious frosting-covered deliciousness for last.

As a child, my Halloween candy would last until Christmas.  My Christmas candy would last until Valentine’s Day.  Hell, I still have some Valentine’s candy from this year in my pantry that I haven’t yet eaten.

These behaviors just came naturally to me.  As soon as I could understand the concept of “saving the best for last,” I did just that.  Somehow, I also correlate my wanting to clean up and liking rules and structure with being able to wait for things I really wanted, or even making myself wait for them.  In other words, I think my ability to delay gratification was helped by me being (and continuing to be) a little OCD.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to get dirty when the time is right, but after playing in the mud with my brother in the backyard, I would come inside and hold out my hands to my mother: “Need da wag, Mommy, need da wag!”  Translation: I needed a rag.  Out, out damn spot!

I still do these behaviors to this day, and I probably won’t ever stop.

I think about coffee and sugary drinks on a daily basis.  I fantasize about them.  Usually when I am trapped at work and want to leave, my fantasy includes sitting on a magical beach where sand can’t get in my crack and sun can’t harm my skin cells, and in one hand is a good book, and in the other is a bottomless grande caramel frappuccino from Starbucks.

But do I drink Starbucks everyday?  No, despite passing one every single time I drive to and from work.

Last story before the fun research part: My clinical internship during my master’s program was in a rural area and I worked with survivors of trauma.  Every day, I had to drive past a Dairy Queen that was within walking distance of my office.  Like I said before, I crave sugar on a daily basis, and I often turn to sweets when I am stressed.  For 9 long months I forced myself to not stop at that Dairy Queen.  It haunted me.  It called to me.

Finally, on the last day of my internship, I walked to DQ and got a blizzard.  Man, did that taste goooood.  Delay of gratification, FTW!!

So how do they test kids to see if they naturally perform this behavior?  It’s quite hilarious to watch.  First, they sit the kid down at a table in a room where they are being secretly videotaped.  The researcher puts a marshmallow down on the table and explains that the researcher is going to leave for a few minutes, and that the kid can have the marshmallow now, but that if the kid wants to wait to eat the marshmallow, and if the marshmallow is still there when the researcher gets back, then the kid can then have TWO marshmallows!

So then the researcher leaves the room and we watch.

Some kids eat that marshmallow so fast and never look back.  Some kids sit and wait patiently for the researcher to get back, because damnit, they want TWO marshmallows!  The interesting ones to watch are the kids who desperately want to wait and get their two marshmallows, and so they employ every tactic they can think of to cheat, avoid, or distract themselves.

Cheat – some kids will take tiny pieces off the marshmallow, or lick it, in hopes the researcher won’t notice and they can get their cake and eat it, too.

Avoid – some kids will turn their back on the marshmallow, or some even played under the table.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Distract themselves – some would use the marshmallow as a toy and play with it.  Some even tortured themselves by pretending to eat it…poor souls.

So what does this mean for behavior later in life?

Well, studies have shown that kids with an ability to delay gratification (meaning they have ‘impulse control’) are less likely to use drugs and break the law as adolescents and adults.  In my case, I wonder if it’s positively correlated with being crazy OCD?

Check out two videos I found and watch the kids squirm….

This last video also had some hilarious kid-coping-skills-moments, but I stopped watching after the speaker went in a religious direction with the analysis.  To each his own.

So, my Psychos, which kind of kid were you?!  Would you have eaten the marshmallow right away?  Would you have cheated?  Would you have waited patiently?

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29 responses

  1. I have always been able to wait… my sister, who couldn’t, generally found my Halloween candy and stole it—hiding the wrappers under her mattress. My kids know that I’m prone to hiding things that I want for myself, and then forgetting I hid them. Ultimate delay of gratification, is when I forget, find them later, and the thing is stale. Glad you’re back Lyssa! Missed you. For realsy. I can wait patiently, but doesn’t mean I like it.

  2. I’ve always been a save-the-best-for-last kind of person. I definitely still do it. Just yesterday I ate a “banana split” ice cream bar, which has an unfortunately fake banana flavoured middle section. I ate the middle section first and then proceeded to eat the chocolate and strawberry sections.

    But I have never thought about how this might manifest in the rest of my life…hmmm….

  3. I have had pretty bad OCD – it’s better now – and well, it shows. If I see a Tim Tam (the best cookie that Australia, or the world for that matter, has to offer) I almost swallow it whole. So the research is probably right.

  4. This is so interesting! I think when I was a kid, I would have put off eating the marshmallow until the researcher returned, but it would have been out of fear that I would be punished if I ate it before they returned (even if they had posed no real threat.) As a kid, I saw most things through a moralistic lens and I tended to believe that adults and authority figures had a predetermined set of expectations for me that they weren’t necessarily going to let me in on. I don’t think any one person lead me to think this way, but it has definitely been something that I’ve had to overcome as an adult.

    • Oooh, now that you mention it, I think I also would have been either afraid of punishment, or at the very least, wanting to please the researcher (as an extension of my parents) and be afraid of their disappointment.

  5. You and I eat our Oreos the same way. But I’m terrible at delaying gratification. As a kid, I would have tried SO HARD to refrain from eating the marshmallow, but I’m pretty sure I would have given in and eaten it, and then kicked myself for NOT waiting, because I’d be so envious of the kids who were rewarded with two marshmallows. As an adult, I’m no better. I’m impatient and I want that instant gratification. Not surprisingly, addiction runs in my family. But I also have some OCD, so go figure.

    • You bring up an interesting point – feeling envious of others who waited. Before I watched the videos I posted, I had never seen dynamics when they put two kids in the room at the same time and how that played out….

  6. Cool info. I have always been a “best for last” person. Even with dinner I would save my favorite item for last sot ensure my last bite is the most delicious one. I never eat dessert first because I like to enjoy it as a special treat at the end of a meal, I was also raised that way. Not sure if I fall into one of those three categories but if I had to choose I would say I avoid temptation.

  7. Lol, I’m pretty sure I’d have cheated as a kid, but I do practice delayed gratification in some parts of my life. When I eat a meal, I eat what I like best last even though it makes my wife nuts. I eat my Oreo as you describe, but I’m skilled enough that all the frosting stays on one side so there’s no debate as to which one gets eaten last.

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