The Psychology of Delayed Gratification – Why Discipline is Overrated

When you’ve worked for something for so hard, you naturally want your efforts to pay off. You want to achieve the results you aimed for. But what do you do if things don’t go your way and you don’t get what you obviously deserve?

The Art of Self-discipline

Not a lot of people realize how important it is to curb their desires now in order to achieve something bigger and better in the future. As humans, we are wired to want and desire certain things in life, sometimes to such a degree that it becomes imperative for us to acquire these things immediately. However, this is not always possible.

More often than not, we have to bide our time before we can get what we want—a brand-new car, a college degree, a lifetime partner. The wait involves exercising self-discipline and willingness to work despite the odds, which is something that people don’t always exhibit.

Self-discipline isn’t all about restraining yourself from the good things in life, but rather the act of harnessing your willpower to accomplish something that is generally deemed desirable.

The other side of the coin is self-control, which is applying your willpower to avoid undesirable things or to delay gratification.  Both are important to maintain well-balanced life but not everyone can exercise them when necessary.

Child’s Play

From our earliest memories, we can recall that self-discipline and self-control are two traits that our parents, family members and teachers have been inculcating in us. In fact, it is through a scientific test involving kids that psychologists were finally able to nail down emotional intelligence and see delayed gratification at work.  Daniel Goleman is credited to have been one of the pioneers of self-discipline studies.

The researchers gathered a group of four-year-old children to wait inside a room one by one, where they were given a plate of one marshmallow each. Once seated, the child was told that he can eat the marshmallow now, but if he can wait for the researcher to come back he can get two marshmallows later.

Simple as the test may be, it actually yielded unique and powerful insights into how people’s minds worked when given choice between grabbing opportunities now or waiting for bigger things to come. Some kids waited for as long as 20 minutes before they were able to get the second marshmallow while others simply ate the one marshmallow within seconds of the researcher’s leaving the room.

There were also different ways by which the children tried to cope with the dilemma of waiting or eating the marshmallow. A few of the kids played games or closed their eyes in order to distract themselves from the tempting treat in front of them.

Take Control of Yourself

The researchers caught up with their test subjects a couple of years after the experiment. Finally, they have empirical proof to back up their hypothesis—those kids who were able to wait for the second marshmallow generally had more effective personal relationships, higher self-reliance and better academic performance. In contrast, the less-patient kids grew up to be shy, stubborn, indecisive and academically-mediocre teenagers.

What does Goleman’s marshmallow experiment tell us? First of all, we should learn that self-discipline is a universal character trait that can be adequately observed across different ages and contexts. You can be a four-year-old kid with a single marshmallow in front of you or a contestant at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” with the million-dollar question being put to you by the game host.

In either situation, you are faced with one question—will you wait and struggle to get a bigger and more desirable prize later? Or will you give in to the temptation and grab what you have right now?

Don’t Be Too Guarded

That said, self-discipline is actually a much-talked about topic, but it is rarely ever exercised by people in real-life situations. And even if you were someone who is content with the one marshmallow, don’t think that you are less of a person over those who can sit around long enough for the other treat to come.

According to Goleman, emotional intelligence can be learned to a certain extent. You can still train yourself to delay gratification and be satisfied today even if you have to wait longer for the things you want to happen.

Moreover, self-discipline also has a dark side. People who are too in control of themselves tend to be less humorous, affectionate and spontaneous. It requires a certain amount of abandon to goof around, so it’s up to you to balance your self-control and self-discipline and live your life to the fullest.