Tag Archives: instant gratification

Self-Control and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

Today’s piece, “Self-Control and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment,” is a guest post written by Ryan, the creator of Frugal Familia. Ryan’s site is dedicated to bringing families closer together while also teaching positive financial behaviors. Frugal Familia attempts to confront the shortcomings of personal finance in our educational system by shifting the responsibility to the family and by making concepts both easy and fun to learn!

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There are two types of people in this world: those who practice self-control and those who seek instant gratification. Which type of person are you?

Self-Control and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

In my younger years I would have failed the marshmallow test miserably. I was all about the got to have it right now mentality. Fast forward to today and my mentality has changed dramatically. Now, I say bring on the marshmallow test, the Portillo’s chocolate cake test, or any other test for that matter! You may be wondering what has brought about such a change, and the answer is actually very simple. I’ve taught myself the importance of self-control and delayed gratification.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was a study conducted by Professor Walter Mischel at Stanford University in 1960’s. In these studies, a child was offered a choice of being able to eat a single marshmallow now, or if they were able to wait fifteen minutes, they would then receive two marshmallows. Some of the children were able to resist the temptation while others were not. The researchers continued to follow up with the children for the next several decades. The results found that those children who were able to wait the fifteen minutes for the additional reward tended to have better life outcomes. Here are a few of the unexpected correlations.

  • higher rates of educational attainment
  • higher SAT scores
  • lower body mass index
  • lower divorce rates
  • lower rates of drug/alcohol addiction
  • better social skills

The marshmallow test over the years has become synonymous with temptation and willpower. This, however, gives way to an entirely different discussion:

Can self-control and delayed gratification be learned, or are they genetic? 

One of the oldest arguments in history is the nature versus nurture debate. To address this concern, there was a follow up study done at the University of Rochester in which the marshmallow test was duplicated, this time with a twist. Before offering the children the marshmallow, the children were split into two groups.

The first group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences. For example, the researcher gave the children a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but never did. Then the researcher gave the children a small sticker and promised to bring better stickers, but never did.

The second group had very reliable experiences. They were promised better crayons and got them. They were told about the better stickers and they received them.

And the results…

In this study, it was found that the second group of children waited an average of four times longer than the first group. This shows that the child’s ability to delay gratification and display self-control was not genetically predisposed but rather a result of their individual experiences and environments. I do believe this assumption holds water. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I myself have also been able to learn these critical abilities over time.

Frugal Familia says, “Bring on the Portillo’s chocolate cake challenge!” (Credit: ChooseChicago.com)

Self-Control and Delayed Gratification In Our Everyday Lives

As Madonna so keenly observed in 1984, we live in a material world. Life is constantly tempting us to indulge in our guilty pleasures which are so readily available. It is up to us as strong minded individuals to resist those urges and exhibit delayed self-control and gratification behavior.

We can choose to have something now, or we can choose to have something bigger and better at a later time. We can have a single minion today, or we can build an army of minions in the future. Every day we are faced with multiple decisions which test our ability to either receive instant gratification or delay gratification. Here are just a few examples;

If you delay the gratification of relaxing and watching television, then you will be more productive.

If you delay the gratification of ending your workout sooner, then you will be stronger.

If you delay the gratification of eating dessert or unhealthy foods, then you will be healthier.

If you delay the gratification of making an expensive purchase, then you will be wealthier.

Delaying gratification improves our willpower and ultimately helps us reach our long-term goals faster. For some people this behavior comes easier than for others; however, fear not – these are behaviors that anyone can learn.

Techniques To Improve Delaying Gratification

With consistent effort and practice, anyone can implement the following techniques to improve self-control and and embrace delayed gratification.


If you cannot resist temptation avoid it! As the age old proverb says, out of sight, out of mind. If you like to spend money shopping, don’t go to the mall. If you tend to crave fast foods, bring your lunch to work.


The children who were able to resist temptation in the marshmallow experiment distracted themselves from eating the marshmallow by singing, playing with their fingers, closing their eyes and other techniques. If you are unable to avoid a particular situation, then it helps to find a distraction. One way of doing so is by focusing on another pleasure which is not currently available. The more you can take your focus away from the temptation, the better.


Visualize the end goal. If you’re saving for a down payment on a home, print out a picture and keep it somewhere to serve as a constant reminder. If you find yourself tempted by dessert, visualize those calories going straight to your hips.


I’m sure most have heard the saying “good things come to those who wait.” Yet it seems so very few of us actually heed this advice. I imagine that with a little hard work and by employing some of the techniques above that anyone can develop better self-control and delayed gratification.

It’s important that we constantly remind ourselves that every decision in life comes with a trade-off. Every time we seek immediate pleasure we are stealing from our future selves, robbing ourselves blind of our future happiness, health, and wealth. I don’t steal from others, so why the heck would I steal from myself?

When we get down to it, there are two types of people in this world. There are those who seek instant gratification and those who are willing to resist their impulses in order to obtain greater pleasure in the future. Which type of person are you?

Do you think you would pass the marshmallow test? Do you naturally practice self-control or seek instant gratification?