Delayed Gratification and Impulse Control

Would you like to learn some self-control techniques? Do you think it's possible to resist temptation? Today, you'll learn some tricks to maintain good habits so can achieve your goals more easily. Continue reading about delayed gratification!
Delayed Gratification and Impulse Control
Adriana Díez

Written and verified by the psychologist Adriana Díez.

Last update: 13 September, 2023

In 1960, Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University, conducted a simple experiment with children. H e tested their ability to contain themselves by focusing on delayed gratification and impulse control.

He gathered a group of four-year-olds and told them they had to wait in a room, in front of a treat. They had to stay there for a few minutes until the researcher returned. If the child hadn’t eaten the treat when the researcher returned, they would reward them with another treat.

Many of the children completed the hard task of exposing themselves to something as tempting as a jelly bean. They held back and didn’t eat it just to get the promised treat. However, others ate the candy immediately after the researcher left. Finally, another group of children really wanted to wait but gave in to immediate gratification.

The experiment didn’t end here. A few years later, a research team led by psychologist BJ Cassey from Cornell University reassessed several children and a few adults (the ones who had participated in the aforementioned study).

The adult participants who overcame temptation as children were the ones who currently had better jobs, completed higher education, and enjoyed better social interactions. On the other hand, the ones who ate the candy had abandoned their studies and had lower-paid jobs.

What conclusion can one derive from this simple experiment? Walter Mischel could sense the importance of educating people in delayed gratification, which most people associate with self-control. Note that these tasks are complicated for children because their prefrontal cortex isn’t developed yet.

Delayed gratification

Although you may not know it, self-control helps you control your impulses. When you work towards a clear goal you know you can reach, you persevere. Thus, you expect more of yourself and value the results a lot more.

Children can learn to delay gratification. It’s good for them to do so. This is because they must learn they can’t get everything they want right away. Thus, they must learn that only perseverance will lead them to good results. Willpower isn’t something you’re born with, but, like many other skills, it requires practice.

Being able to wait and not give in to instant gratification gives you the opportunity to get better results. You must learn to design a plan, experiment and fail, and learn how to solve a problem. You must acquire the skills and tools that’ll allow you to confront situations and use the many resources you have at hand.

Self-control is a skill with a strong genetic component. However, you can improve it through various tools such as attention management and anxiety control.

A girl thinking.

How to improve your self-control

  • Distraction techniques. Try to think about other things and direct your mind elsewhere.
  • Visualization. Visualize an upcoming reward or what you’ll get if you persevere. This is a way of approaching what you want to achieve and not lose sight of it.
  • Short-term and long-term goals. Dividing the path to achieving large goals into small steps will allow you to add small reinforcers here and there.
  • Benefits that you get with self-control. Attaining self-control is closely linked to the pleasant sensations of being able to resist, persevere, and impose your will over your impulses.

Everyone can overcome temptation and delay rewards to boost their self-control. Of course, it requires motivation, willpower, skills, and tools. In addition, you must be self-confident and know what you want to achieve in order to pursue it.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.