Some people are more impulsive than others.
If you don’t know which end of the spectrum you fall on, think of the moment your phone makes that “ping”. Are you someone who reads that message right away or do you resist the urge until you’re ready for it?
Suppressing the urge is called delayed gratification. This means you resist taking immediate action in the hopes of obtaining an even greater reward down the line.
But, is delayed gratification something inherently in us or does it change as we get older? An old and new study shed light on the matter.
Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Test”
Testing delayed gratification was originally tested by Walter Mischel with his “marshmallow test” in the 1960s. In his experiment, he placed a marshmallow in front of a child and gave him or her a choice.
The child could wait for some time (15 minutes) until Walter came back with a second marshmallow (i.e. two marshmallows) or the child could eat the single marshmallow at any time and forfeit the opportunity of getting a second one.
Fast forward ten years later, Mischel compared his “marshmallow test” results with those of the subjects’ Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores. What he found was a strong correlation between longer delayed times and SAT scores.
This finding suggested that those who delayed longer in favor of a higher-value reward when they were young retained this tendency in their study habits when they grew older.
Follow-Up Research on Delayed Gratification
BJ Casey et al. conducted a follow-up study with nearly 60 of the same participants in their mid-forties. The subjects were shown faces of men and women and were instructed to push a button (“go”) for one gender but not for the other (“no go”).
The confusion came in with the expressions on the faces. Some faces were happy while others were neutral or even scary. This proved to be a distraction since most people associate happy faces with a “go” response.
What the study proved was that those with low delay of gratification from childhood were consistently less able to suppress a “go” response to a “no go” response. fMRI scans of those with high delay gratification were compared between “no go” happy face trials and “go” trials.
What they found was that the right inferior frontal gyrus, a part of prefrontal cortex in the brain involved in decision making, was more active for “no go” trials with correct responses, consistent with previous findings that prefrontal cortex is involved in response inhibition.
Meanwhile, fMRI scans of those with low delay of gratification displayed greater activity in the ventral striatum. This has been implicated in processing rewarding cues such as a happy face, compared to the group with higher delay of gratification during a “no go” happy face task.
Delayed Gratification Persists Into Adulthood
What these studies help confirm is that delayed behaviour in these individuals persists into their adulthood. And, there is a strong correlation between the intelligence levels of those that delay their gratification and those that do not.
In conclusion, higher activity in the inferior frontal gyrus may aid in suppressing the impulsive “go” response. Meanwhile, those with poor delayed gratification have higher activity in the ventral striatum, which overrides the rational prefrontal cortex in favour of more impulsive responses.
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