Delayed Gratification: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:30 The Marshmallow Test
  • 1:43 Conclusions from…
  • 3:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Are you the type of person who gets all their work done before going out for a night of fun? If so, you have successfully mastered delayed gratification, which has a big impact on many areas of life.


Delayed gratification refers to the ability to put off something mildly fun or pleasurable now, in order to gain something that is more fun, pleasurable, or rewarding later. For example, you could watch TV the night before an exam, or you could practice delayed gratification and study for the exam. The latter would increase your chances of getting an A in the course at the end of a semester, which is much more satisfying long-term than a night of watching TV.

The Marshmallow Test

The degree of people's ability to delay gratification can be measured at an early age, and can predict later life success. This was proven by the research of American psycholgist Walter Mischel that started in the 1960s and involved what is known as the marshmallow test. In this test, the experimenter gave four-year-old children a marshmallow and told them that they could either eat the marshmallow now, or wait fifteen minutes until the experimenter got back from doing a task and have two marshmallows. The children would then have to sit in a room with the marshmallow right in front of them. Some of the children could not resist the temptation and ate it before the experimenter returned. Other children displayed delayed gratification and were able to wait for two marshmallows.

Mischel tracked these children and was able to link their performance on this test with success in life more than ten years later. Specifically, children who were able to wait for two marshmallows grew up to be more intelligent, more likely to resist temptation, have better social responsibility, exhibit better ways to cope with frustration and stress, and strive for higher levels of achievement in many areas of life. In one group of participants, there was a link between delay of gratification and higher SAT scores.

Conclusions from Mischel's Work

After the work of Mischel, other researchers have focused more on the negative outcomes associated with an inability to delay gratification. In these experiments, it was discovered that low abilities associated with a higher body mass index and higher risk of drug addiction and anger problems. Since research has established its importance in later life success, one of the big questions is how do we go about teaching this skill to children who seem to lack an ability to delay gratification?

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