DEFERRED GRATIFICATION
Dee Chadwick
11 Jul 2021
The concept of deferred or delayed gratification brings an instant image of telling a dog to ‘sit’ as you put down its meal and it sits looking with lip licking, drooling anticipation at its food – waiting for the signal that it can begin gobbling it down.

IS IT SOMETHING WE USED TO DO MORE OFTEN?

Certainly for what is now deemed by so many of us as one of life’s ‘necessities’. I remember saving up for my first washing machine. Dreaming of how it would be to own one as I stood elbow deep in suds at the kitchen sink doing my laundry. Then squeezing out as much water as possible – something that my little hands struggled with, so I usually ended up rather wet once all was pegged out on the washing line. I can remember the day that my first washing machine arrived – far from automatic, but I was so proud of it. However, I really cannot remember the arrival of any subsequent replacement models which had been paid for by flashing the good old plastic – payment deferred, if not gratification. I now take what was a real luxury very much for granted. I don’t think this makes me a bad person, but it certainly doesn’t make me a better person.

WHAT CAN BE DEFERRED?

Apart from the dog’s dinner, and me saving up for things in the good old fashioned way, often things for my sons – is it, for many, largely a thing of the past. Talking of said sons – I had made a tray of jam tarts that would be their treat in their school lunch boxes. There were twelve fresh from the oven put onto a wire tray to cool. I left the kitchen, and on my return, there were only eleven tarts, though they had been shuffled around in an effort for there not to be an obvious gap. I called for my sons. Both denied any knowledge of having helped themselves. OK, hardly the crime of the century but they were brought up to tell the truth. Sadly for one, he had a very swollen lip as a result of the piping hot jam – caught red handed, or rather red lipped. Bless.

What do you feel that you are deferring? The list can be endless, but is this delaying being brought about through a lack of motivation, a feeling that you won’t get that sense of achievement afterwards, or a fear of what may come between where you are now and where or what you want to get to. Are you putting off until tomorrow what you could be doing today if you didn’t put reasons ... excuses ... in the way? I include a quote from French author Anais Nin, beautifully illustrated by my friend Julie.

IS IT SOMETHING THAT WE ALL DO?

It’s down to self-regulation, self-control... something that he who couldn’t resist the jam tart lacked! As an article in positivepsychology.com tells us ‘that self-regulation will directly impact the outcomes of all of those future plans. In a culture surrounded by the messaging that you can lose the discomfort right now, the ability to wait for a long term reward is less attractive....(yet) knowing how to delay pleasure in an effort to serve a more important and more gratifying goal makes all the difference in achieving that goal.’

So, is it something that we are born with? I remember when studying Child Psychology many moons ago that there was  piece of research known as the Marshmallow Study, designed to check out a children’s abilities to delay gratification. The initial study group, was run by Walter Mischel, at Stanford University, in the late 1960’s. A group of pre-schoolers was taken from the University community, so a rather restricted sample group. They had a choice. They could either wait to receive a treat or if they didn’t wait, they had a lesser treat. The lesser treat – a marshmallow, and if they waited, more marshmallows. I have to say I always questioned this as well as the sample. If that had been me as a young child, I could have sat there for ages as I have never liked marshmallows. Had it been chocolate, a different matter and self-control could well have gone out of the window. The children were left with the marshmallow in front of them, timed and the length of time they could wait measured their ability to defer gratification. Some sat staring at the marshmallow, whilst others used diversionary tactics to avoid looking at the temptation.

The results of follow-up, longitudinal studies claimed that the length of time (in seconds!)the  child could resist eating the marshmallow indicated later academic ability (age 15), and was said to reflect levels of aggression, frustration and social skills.   (Mischel et al., 1972, 1989). Further research was carried out to find out if factors such as the visibility of the reward had any effect on behaviour. Key cognitive skills were identified and included in early years teaching as perceived as skills for lifelong use. Later studies showed that the child’s economic and social backdrop affects their ability to delay gratification. For some, maybe one marshmallow is too great a treat to even consider waiting to get two. Hence, the skewing of the initial results caused by the sample of children being selected from a similar background. Said background also significantly affects the child’s ability to progress academically and in other areas of life.  Also affected is their ability to resist what may be seen by some as a treat; or ‘just a marshmallow’ when they are used to a ready supply of these and even better treats at home. Having said that, I believe it remains a positive strategy to ensure that all children are supported in their development of essential life skills as well as learning the subjects of the curriculum. One of these skills remains the ability to delay gratification – to be able to work towards a target that isn’t immediately in front of their nose. A skill that can be honed over the years, though I personally still find it difficult to resist that chocolate with the thought that I will be able to enjoy it later! Hence my avoidance of the chocolate aisle at the supermarket as if I don’t have it in the house, I can’t eat it. I do admit that sometimes I’m sure that if I stray down the forbidden aisle that the chocolate just seems to jump into my shopping trolley. I don’t feel that my excuse of the large number of candles on my birthday cake is acceptable, especially as my non-deferring of this particular gratification could affect the continuation of adding on further candles... and then there’s my expanding waistline – and I was doing so well before lockdown!

So many of our teens are required to focus on their academic work in order progress through the educational system to the world of work and what is seen as a ‘good job’. When I was at this stage, it was so much easier as I worked in my bedroom. The main distraction was the cold, so extra layers of clothing were added and warm drinks provided. These days, a bedroom doesn’t equate with isolation with phones and computers providing a substitute for face to face friends’ time. Delayed gratification is much more difficult as there are far more instant temptations to hand – though this doesn’t wholly make up for true social interaction, so sorely missed by many during that dreaded lockdown. I wonder, does it depend on how clear and realistic a picture of their goal they have in their mind? That picture, if a clear one, really supports the ability to delay that party, that get together until after the submission of a piece of work, an exam, whatever.

Sadly, divorce rates can be affected by problems of deferring gratification. So many couples spend years of struggling to raise a young family, provide a home and pay for this, as well as the mountain of bills that never seem to take a break. Maybe one partner feels that they are doing more than their fair share of chores, financial support, child care etc etc etc. The idea that if that work ladder continues to be climbed, then there will come a time when the struggles are lessened may seem to be too far in the future – maybe when the children have flown the nest? Do they feel that they would then be too old to kick their heels up and have fun – as a couple, a family. Far easier, especially with the support of those mobile phones and messaging, to look for pastures greener. Deferred gratification – nah, not bothering with that when it can be found immediately elsewhere.

AN ASIDE - 

In these days of instant, in your face oft repeated superficially presented news, I was delighted to stumble across a magazine entitled ‘DELAYED GRATIFICATION’ which boasts that it is ‘Proud to be ‘last to breaking news’ since 2011 – and I have only just heard of it, so delayed gratification on my part too. They state’ We value being right above being first. Like the other Slow movements such as Slow Food and Slow Travel, we take time to do things properly. Instead of desperately trying to beat social media to breaking news stories, we focus on the values we all expect from quality journalism – accuracy, depth, context, analysis and expert opinion.’

They already had me hooked, but that was hook line and sinker when they continued with ‘How often have you been bombarded with a story by the media for several days, only to feel dissatisfied when the news agenda moves on to the next big story and you never get to discover what happened next? We pick up the pieces after the dust has settled so you can read about the medium- and long-term impact of news events.’

I can’t be the only person who wants to know what happens after the initial headlines have left our screens, or have been put into the recycle bin. It’s rather like seeing the first part of a film and then having to leave the cinema! So often before, finding out what happened next and how this unfolded hasn’t been an easy thing to do.

POSSIBLY AN IMMINENT END TO A LONG WAIT

The England World Cup(soccer) win of 1966 has led to a lengthily  deferred gratification in the form of a further major win. I have never been able to remember goals, who scored them and how. But, firmly lodged in my brain – the same one that really can’t recall what I did yesterday – is the celebration jig performed by Nobby Styles and the huge grin that accompanied this – missing teeth and all. I wonder if we English folk will be celebrating in our own individual ways tonight with that wonderful feeling of gratification zooming on in ... or will the deferment continue? I admit to it being hard to type this with fingers crossed, so am having to make do with just crossing my ankles.

I guess that the possible anticipation of a win is tinged with fear that the hype, the news showing lots of expectant supporters could be building us up for a fall...and a longer delay. Presumably, I am far from the only one who is accompanying their thoughts with ‘yes but – Italy are a good side who haven’t lost for three years’, ‘yes but – will England play as well as they did against Denmark?’ etc etc.

Having waited for fifty-five years, I, along with many others, am hoping that this particularly long deferred gratification comes to an end in a few hours time – I would even be grateful if we won by a penalty shoot-out, though it would be hard to watch from behind my cushion. But if we win, I could well be doing my version of that jig and hoping that the next wait isn’t so long.
PS - added some hours later. This particular deferrment continues - as does my total dislike of penalty shoot-outs.  

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