Delayed gratification is just not my style, and that’s OK

The story below is one woman's story of how generalized her inability to delay gratification is. I found much the same in my research. I found that there is a consisent tendency to delay or not delay gratification. It is not a wholly consisent tendency. Some alleged indices of delay of gratification do not correlate with others so we have to be careful which index we use if we want to show a consistent tendency. But the consistent tendency does exist.

Parenthetically, I must say I share the lady's difficulties with toast

I was standing in my kitchen impatiently waiting for my toast to pop up. It had been in there for hours, and I was hungry.

“It’s been less than a minute!” my partner said. “Be patient!”

I was not patient. I hovered irritably for another few seconds before pushing the button and retrieving my toast.

“Wow,” my partner said. “You really are a one-marshmallow person.”

“Marshmallow shmarshmallow,” I told him, smothering my warm bread in butter and Vegemite and cramming it into my mouth.

Still, I knew what he meant. In 1972, psychologists at Stanford University gave groups of four-year-olds the choice of eating one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later, to test their ability to delay gratification. I was not included in the study, but if I had been, I’d definitely have eaten the one marshmallow straight away. I am genetically incapable of waiting for anything. Two marshmallows might be better than one, but waiting for a marshmallow is far worse.

I know that being able to delay gratification is an important life skill, but it is a skill I have never mastered. Whenever I want anything, whether it is a marshmallow or an answer, it feels exceptionally urgent. I’m unsettled and agitated until the marshmallow is in my mouth, or the question answered.

The upside is that I get my needs met pretty quickly. The downside is that I make rushed decisions, and frequently annoy other people.

“Couldn’t this have waited until morning?” Mum will ask tiredly when I call her late at night to ask a pressing question. And yes, I probably could have waited until morning to ask whether my old bedspread is still in storage, or what her plans are for the holidays, but then I would have been thinking about it all night. It is so much easier to just get it done now.

“Why didn’t you wait for your appointment?” my hairdresser will ask, shaking her head as she contemplates my uneven fringe. I wanted to wait, I really did, but my hair was too long, and the scissors were in my bathroom, and a week felt like an eternity.

I am genetically incapable of waiting for anything. Two marshmallows might be better than one, but waiting for a marshmallow is far worse.

I am fascinated and awed by people who calmly wait for marshmallows. My elder daughter, for example, will realise she needs a new pair of shoes, and not buy them for weeks, or even months. She will think, “No biggie, I’ll get them later,” and park the desire in the back of her mind.

This is sensible and mature but it is not how my brain functions. My brain thinks, “I need a new pair of shoes.” Within minutes I am online, browsing through catalogues until I find a pair that will suffice. Often, I realise down the track that I would have found a better pair had I taken my time, but that is the price I must pay to eat my marshmallow now.

I have tried over the years to learn to delay gratification, with very minimal success. I once put a jumper on lay-by, way back in the days when Buy Now Pay Later was several inventions away. I paid a deposit, arranged to pay the jumper off in instalments, and left that beautiful jumper in the store.

It did not go well. I thought about the jumper all the way home, and in bed that night as I tried to sleep. I thought of how soft it was, how it would complement my jeans, how much I longed to wear it. The next day, I returned to the store, paid off the lay-by and never attempted that exercise again.

The Stanford marshmallow study found kids who could delay gratification grew into smarter, more competent adults than those who could not. (I know this because I skipped to the conclusion.)

Follow-up studies have questioned these claims and I’d like to add there are advantages to being a one-marshmallow person, which the Stanford team failed to note. For one thing, I’m extremely punctual. Whether I am meeting a friend for lunch, going to a movie or catching a flight, I will be there on time, if not early. I simply can’t wait a second longer than necessary.

For another, I never agonise over decisions. I like having issues resolved quickly, so if there are several options I’ll just pick one that looks okay and stick with that. I won’t spend hours debating which sofa to buy, or which holiday destination to visit, or which movie to watch. I’d rather have one good-enough option sorted now than a better option further down the track.

“A marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the bush!” I tell my partner.

He shakes his head. “You know that’s not actually true? Two marshmallows in the hand are worth twice as much!”

But I am not listening. I am too busy eating the froth off my cappuccino. It’s my favourite part! I always have it first.


1 comment:

  1. I suppose there are many things that can inspire delayed gratification; being a parent, work, the concept of a Christian heaven, being stuck in an elevator and so on.

    It is basically about restraint and learning to eye better judgement amongst one’s desires.

    My morning tea will have to be crowbared out of my hands. It makes me look forward to the mornings and is a pleasant way to start the day.


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