In this post, we’ll unpack all you need to know about instant gratification, defining exactly what it is, how it relates to our evolution, the science behind it and more.
What Is Instant Gratification?
Instant gratification refers to the human tendency to prioritize short-term pleasure over long-term pleasure.
The Evolutionary Perspective
From an evolutionary perspective, those who seized immediate rewards, particularly in times of uncertainty and scarcity, were more likely to survive and reproduce. As a consequence, the brain evolved to prioritise short-term rewards over-long term rewards.
While now live in a modern abundance-based world, we still bear an ancient scarcity-based brain.
When you identify something that you associate with pleasure, the brain perceives it as a “reward” (anything that is going to enhance your survival) and so it releases dopamine to motivate you to pursue the reward.
The brain also triggers the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline which are responsible for inducing feelings of anxiety. Hence why the more you focus on a desire, the more important it becomes to you and the more you feel like you need to have it right now.
However, the anxiety you feel isn’t caused by not having what you want. It’s caused by the desire itself. It’s a survival mechanism that is designed to make you obey.
This becomes a problem in a consumer centric world that is engineered to keep us always wanting more. In fact, whole industries are designed to manipulate our senses as a way to influence us to buy their products.
The Marshmallow Experiment
In a study pioneered in the 1960s by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel, researchers left a child between the ages of 3 and 5 alone in a room for fifteen minutes with a marshmallow on the table in front of them.
Before leaving the room “to do some work”, the child was instructed that the single treat on one plate could be eaten at any time, but if the child could wait for him to return before eating it, then they could have the second, bigger treat instead. So the choice was simple; one treat now or two treats later.
After leaving the room, researchers on the other side of a two-way mirror monitored the child’s bout with temptation. They then recorded how long he or she could hold out before licking or eating the treat.
Decades later, Mischel and his colleagues caught up with the subjects used in the original study. The subjects who held out for two treats did better in school, got higher SAT scores, had higher self-esteem and better emotional coping skills and were less likely to abuse drugs.
Therefore, as this study demonstrates, the ability to delay gratification is crucial for success in life.
How To Override Instant Gratification
While instant gratification isn’t necessarily wrong, it can sabotage our success.
In order to override our tendency for instant gratification, we need to harness the power of its opposite force ― delayed gratification. Delayed gratification refers to delaying a “reward.” More simply, it’s the ability to wait to get what you want.
The more we practice delayed gratification, the easier it becomes.
Instant gratification refers to the human tendency to prioritise short-term rewards. This tendency evolved as an adaptation over the course of human history as those who capitalised on instant rewards were more likely to survive.
The key to overriding our tendency for instant gratification is to apply delayed gratification by delaying rewards. The more we practice delayed gratification, the easier it becomes.