The psychology of self-control and “delayed gratification”

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

piggy bank
Being patient today can lead to big rewards in the future, whether you’re delaying gratification when it comes to money, food, or short-term fun!

There’s no denying that people have to use self-control on a daily basis, especially when it comes to giving up short-term rewards now, for larger ones in the future. This practice is called “delaying gratification”, and it can be difficult for everyone. According to new research, however, delaying gratification is hard because we’re thinking about it all wrong! Self-control is much easier when we focus on dramatic consequences.

People practicing self-discipline often think to themselves, “Huh, if I resist the smaller reward now, I can get something bigger later.” However, researchers have found that people should stop thinking in terms of small versus large rewards; this makes it difficult to resist the immediate pleasure. Instead, it’s much easier to have self-control when thinking in terms of having something versus nothing.

To reach this conclusion, researchers decided to test 182 study participants’ ability to delay gratification. In one trial, the experimenters asked a group of volunteers, “Would you prefer to receive $6 today or $8.50 in 46 days?” This compared a smaller amount to a bigger amount. Then, they asked another group, “Would you prefer to receive $6 today and $0 in 45 days, or $0 today and $8.50 in 46 days?” If you’re sharp, you probably noticed that the amount of money being offered is the exact same in both situations, but the phrasing in the second one uses “$0” as part of the question. The human reaction to these equally valuable offers, amusingly enough, were quite different.

Basically, the second group received an offer the researchers called “explicit-zero”, which is a more obviously phrased “something versus nothing” deal instead of the “small versus large” phrasing used on the first group. According to the results, people who were given the explicit-zero condition found the immediate reward unappealing, demonstrated greater willpower, and were more likely to delay their gratification!

The team of scientists say their findings can help in areas where self-control and delayed gratification are needed most, such as addiction, crime, diet, exercise, money, and politics. So, the next time you reach for that smartphone instead of doing your homework, think to yourself, “Do I want to send texts today and get an F in English class 3 months from now, or send no texts today and get an A in English class 3 months from now?” Make up your own extreme “explicit-zero” phrases and see if it motivates you! Just make sure it’s dramatic.

Featured image courtesy of PBS. Image of piggy bank courtesy of Ken Teegardin on Flickr.