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The delay of gratification and the ability to resist impulses

The delay of gratification and the ability to resist impulses

July 18, 2024

Let's imagine that we are children and they put a candy or a bauble in front of us, they tell us how good it is and what we can eat if we want to. However, the person who offers it to us tells us that it has to come out a moment, and that if it does not come back when we return it will give us another one besides the one that is already present. When the person leaves the room, we still have in front of the candy in question.

What do we do, eat it now or wait and have a bigger reward later? This situation is what Walter Mischel used to observe the ability to delay gratification In children. In this article, we will go deeper into this important concept that explains to a large extent many of our abilities and behaviors.


  • Related article: "Maslow's pyramid: the hierarchy of human needs"

Delay of gratification: what is it?

The term delay of the graphing refers to the ability of human beings to inhibit their behavior and their current desires in order to obtain a greater or more desirable advantage or benefit in the future. It is an element clearly linked to motivation and goal setting.

Although the experiment referred to in the introduction may seem an unimportant concept, the truth is that it has great relevance in our lives. The ability to delay gratification it allows us to control our basic impulses and adjust our behavior to our goals and expectations.


In the same way, it has been found that it correlates positively with a better academic, work and social performance, a greater perceived self-efficacy and self-esteem and in general a better adaptation to the environment, increased our competence, self-esteem and self-efficacy. It allows us to manage ourselves and deal with crisis situations , assess the pros and cons of executing an action and its consequences before doing it, face uncertainty and frustration and establish and follow plans.

  • You may be interested: "Differences between the libido of the two sexes"

Aspects that affect this ability

The delay of gratification It depends on the self-control of the individual , the ability to manage their cognitive and emotional resources.

Variables such as the amount of delay in obtaining the jackpot, the value awarded to each of the reinforcers, the state of need or deprivation of the subject (if they offer you 1000 euros today or 10000 in three months, you may take the first if you need the money tomorrow) or the possibility of physically or mentally moving away from the reinforced present from the beginning are very relevant when it comes to explaining whether or not the subject is able to wait. The same can be said of the fact that obtaining results after waiting is reliable or just a possibility.


You also have to keep in mind that the delay of gratification is not given only to physical stimuli , but that delay also appears in cognitive, emotional and behavioral elements (for example, not to explode with someone who has infuriated us so as not to harm the relationship or to manage the situation correctly).

It must also be borne in mind that not always a subject will want to delay gratification, without that for it has a capacity of delay less than those who do decide to wait. For example, the result of waiting may not be appetitive for the subject, or the immediate reward may be satisfactory enough (if with a treat I already satisfy my hunger, why do I want two?).

Or on the contrary, a subject can wait because the initial stimulus is not appetitive enough by itself if it is not accompanied by more (it is not the same as five cents offered to me that twenty euros). That is why when studying this phenomenon must take into account the various variables involved in order to be able to take into account whether the presence or absence of delay is due to the subject is able to hold and manage their impulses or well for lack of these.

At the brain level

If we think about the delay of gratification at the neurological level, we must have that the existence of this capacity is linked to the control of impulses, the ability to make decisions, motivation and the perception of pleasure and reward.

Thus, we are going to find that the frontal lobe has an important participation at the time of whether or not there is delay of gratification: both the inhibition of behavior and the decision making are linked to the dorsolateral prefrontal, with executive functions mediated by this . In fact, individuals with lesions in the prefrontal tend to have a lower ability to delay gratification because manifest less behavioral inhibition .

Likewise, it has also been found a link between this capacity and the cerebral reward system (especially important are the nucleus accumbens and the caudate nucleus of the basal ganglia and the limbic system), elements linked to the uptake of the reinforcing or inhibitory value of stimuli, emotion and motivation.

A trainable ability

Self-control and the ability to delay gratification, although they exist in humans as well as in other animals such as primates, are not developed from the moment of birth. In fact, in the same experiment that starts the article Mischel observed that as a general rule children under four years were not able to delay the search for satisfaction . This is due, among other things, to the lack of development of its frontal lobe, which does not reach its maximum level of development until adulthood.

Also, although there is a certain innate component, it has been observed that it is a skill that can be trained. For example, techniques can be taught to distract attention from the desired stimulus and postpone its acquisition, to move away from the stimulation itself or to assess the advantages and disadvantages before acting. Modeling can also be useful.

Educational practices and various therapeutic programs can lead to children and adults with problems of self-control (for example, a hyperactive child or with behavioral problems or a substance addict) being more able to achieve the delay of gratification. The use of metaphors, of self-instructions and exposure in imagination can also be useful.

Bibliographic references:

  • Cloninger, S. (2002). Personality theories. Third edition. Pearson Education. Spain.
  • Hernangómez, L. and Fernández, C. (2012). Psychology of personality and differential. CEDE preparation manual PIR, 07. CEDE: Madrid.
  • Mischel, W .; Shoda, Y. & Rodríguez, M.L. (1992). Delay of Gratification in Children. In Lowenstein, G. & Elster, J. Choice Over Time. Russell Sage Foundation. pp. 147-64.

The Marshmallow Test (July 2024).


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