The Troublesome Nature of Instant Gratification

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The Risks of Giving In

Today more than ever, the world is at our fingertips. A quick search on our smart phone, a quick entry of our credit card number, a drive-thru window—we can have, it seems, anything we want, and quickly. But if we considered the long-term effects of those decisions, perhaps we wouldn’t make them so haphazardly. Rarely is the deal as good as it sounds; something that gratifies us right now may have costs later on. Often, in chasing the thrill of instant gratification, we’re compelled to take a risk. When those risks don’t pay off, they can have serious consequences.

For example, imagine that after a long night at a party, a drunk guest and his friends are craving fast food, right that second. It can’t wait! They hop in the car, but on the way to the drive-thru, the driver loses control of the vehicle and kills a pedestrian. It was, of course, an accident, but that sort of accident is entirely preventable, note personal injury lawyers Mushkatel, Robbins & Becker, PLLC. If the driver had weighed the lifetime effects on the victim’s family against his instant need for a hamburger, he would never have gotten in the car. The truth is, it’s usually pretty hard to suppress our immediate desires, but learning to do so may not be such a bad idea.

The Benefits of Delayed Gratification

Giving into our desire for instant gratification can have long-reaching negative implications. In a famous 1970 psychology experiment, Stanford researcher Walter Mischel offered young children a single marshmallow, with the promise that if they waited a few minutes, they could have two. Most children did not hold out for the second goodie, but the ones who did were found to enjoy greater success later in life (as measured by higher SAT scores, higher college completion rates, and higher incomes). On the flip side, more recent research suggests that adults who can’t delay their gratification are more likely to have higher BMI’s and drug-addiction problems.

Luckily, the research also suggests that we can outsmart our immediate desires. A key player is attention—the less we think about the desire, the less likely we are to satisfy it immediately. So, distracting ourselves for even a few minutes (from, say, the idea of a fast-food run after a party) may help us resist. Another factor is our ability to imagine the appeal of the delayed rewards. Typically, it’s hard to wait for something that by virtue of being in the future is rather abstract, especially if the immediate reward is right within our grasp. One way to get around this tendency is to try to flip that situation: hide the immediate temptation, or pretend it’s something else, while visualizing specific details of the future reward. No one is perfect, and we are bound to give in to our desire for instant gratification once in a while. Considering the negative effects of doing so, however, we would do well to try to overcome that instinct.


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