Instant Gratification vs. Delayed Gratification

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Understanding the difference between instant gratification and delayed gratification can be an important way to make sense of different theories of motivation. This lesson helps you understand the distinction clearly.

Why Does Gratification Matter?

Have you been thinking about motivation, or what causes and drives people to do the things we do? There are so many different factors that motivate us, and it can be confusing to try to disentangle them. One thing that many theories of motivation share, though, is a belief in the importance of gratification, or some sense of reward or gain that arises because of a behavior.

Gratification can sometimes be understood on a very concrete level. For instance, a child who behaves extremely well might be gratified concretely because their parents compliment them or even because they receive some sort of material reward.

Gratification is not always so concrete, however. Sometimes, gratification involves seeing someone else experience a sense of joy or safety, and sometimes it means seeing the end result of hard labor. Whether talking about more concrete or abstract gratification, though, and whether the gratification happens internally or comes from an external source, it is important to understand that gratification motivates much of what we do.

This lesson helps you understand the difference between instant and delayed gratification with an eye toward making sense of how these distinctions play out in motivation.

Instant Gratification

One kind of gratification that we hear a lot about is instant gratification. This is gratification or reward that occurs almost immediately after a particular act is performed. Instant gratification can be extremely motivating, especially for people that have trouble waiting and need to see right away that their behavior has a result. At the same time, instant gratification can be deceptive, since it might belie the fact that long-term change has not in fact occurred.

This example illustrates some benefits and risks of instant gratification. Imagine a child who refuses to clean her room. Her parents promise her that if she cleans it, they will give her a piece of bubble gum right away. The child is likely to be motivated. She will clean her room and be instantly gratified by the reward. The short-term goal has thus been accomplished, and this is no small feat!

At the same time, though, the child may learn that she needs instant gratification in order to accomplish this basic expectation. She may not learn the behavioral patterns and relational rewards that would come from having to wait.

Delayed Gratification

A different kind of gratification to think about is delayed gratification. This is gratification that takes a longer time to emerge after the act has been performed. Delayed gratification can be motivating because it is something to work toward over time and can really change behavioral patterns. At the same time, delayed gratification can be hard to wait for and can lead to some people giving up on change.

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