The Secondary Process and Delayed Gratification

What is delayed gratification and why is it so important in life

The Secondary Process and Delayed Gratification

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In today’s day and age of one click purchases and immediately accessible information, instant gratification is seen as the norm.

The always-on world, with smartphones and Wi-Fi, reinforces that you have to get what you want right away. But instant gratification isn’t always best – in fact, impulse control is an essential life skill.

When it comes to achieving your goals, delayed gratification is the skill that will get you there faster.

The truth is, it’s not realistic to get everything you want, much less get it immediately. Instant gratification is actually a source of frustration – it creates false expectations. By learning to employ delayed gratification, you buy time to strategize thoughtfully and learn from your failures. But what is delayed gratification? And how can you build this essential skill?

Achieve your goals faster by delaying gratification

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Delayed gratification means resisting the temptation of an immediate reward, in anticipation that there will be a greater reward later. It’s a powerful tool for learning to live your life with purpose. It’s linked to impulse control: Those with high impulse control typically excel at delayed gratification. However, delayed gratification is also a skill that you can develop.

According to Freud’s “pleasure principle,” humans are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is why children seek instant gratification.

But as we mature, this desire is tempered by the “reality” principle, or the ability of humans to consider risks versus rewards, by which we’re able to delay fulfillment instead of making a poor decision – especially if the later reward is greater than the one we’d get immediately. This is delayed gratification. 

The ability to hold out now for a better reward later is an essential life skill. Delayed gratification allows you to do things forgo large purchases to save for a vacation, skip dessert to lose weight or take a job you don’t love but that will help your career later on. 

In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel created one of the best delayed gratification examples. He tested hundreds of young children by placing each child in a private room, accompanied only by a single marshmallow placed on the table.

Researchers then offered each child a deal: If the child refrained from eating the marshmallow while researchers briefly left the room, the child would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

But if the child ate the first marshmallow, there would be no second one.  

The results of the so-called “Marshmallow Experiment” underscored the difficulty humans of any age have with delayed gratification. Some children ate the first marshmallow immediately. Others tried to restrain themselves but eventually gave in. Only a few children managed to hold out for the two-marshmallow reward. 

Researchers followed the Marshmallow Experiment participants into adulthood over a span of 40 years. Un the children who caved to temptation, the children who delayed their reward were far more successful in almost all areas of life.

They scored higher on standardized tests, were healthier, responded better to stress, had fewer substance abuse issues and demonstrated better social skills.

This delayed gratification example proved that it is pivotal to success in almost every facet of life.

The ability to delay gratification is a learned behavior in children – and adults, too, can train their brains to wait.

Researchers at the University of Rochester wanted to dig deeper into the question, “What is delayed gratification?” They followed up on the famous Marshmallow Experiment with a new group of children and an important twist. They split the children into two groups prior to the marshmallow test.

For the first group, researchers promised rewards crayons and stickers, but the rewards never materialized. For the second group, the rewards materialized as promised. 

The children in the first group struggled with delayed gratification, because they’d been conditioned to believe the reward wouldn’t actually occur. They had no reason to wait, since evidence had never given them cause to trust the researchers. For those of us working to embrace delayed gratification as a life skill, there are several valuable lessons to be learned from these kids. 

The children who received prizes as promised had unknowingly trained their brains to believe that (1) they were capable of delaying gratification and (2) delayed gratification was worth the wait.

These kids’ ability to postpone pleasure was not predetermined or genetic – it was a learned behavior. That means you can train your brain to delay gratification in a number of different situations.

Skills impulse control and long-term thinking are essential to achieving your goals throughout life. Here are some examples of delayed gratification in different areas of your life.

  • Resist the impulse to start a fight or react angrily to your partner, and instead use your communication skills to find a constructive solution.
  • Put your phone down – resisting the instant gratification of social media or texting – and be fully present with your partner.
  • Resist the desire to marathon Netflix or scroll through social media, and instead use your N.E.T. time to gain skills or knowledge that will advance your career.
  • Delay the gratification of a night out or a late happy hour, in favor of being well-rested and prepared for a big presentation.
  • Instead of giving in to the instant gratification of eating that piece of cake, delay your gratification and reap the reward of vitality and energy later.
  • Resist the comfort, certainty and instant gratification you get from an easy workout. Find your workout inspiration and earn the delayed gratification of health benefits.
  • Delay the gratification of purchasing something you don’t absolutely need, and earn the long-term reward of having more savings and financial freedom.
  • You may not get instant returns when you make investments, but the delayed gratification is even greater as you compound your money.

If you want to develop self-control, it might be tempting to build as much “muscle” as possible by denying yourself anything pleasurable. You might even be tempted to up the ante by denying yourself a reward you’d promised yourself.

But when you take the approach of tricking yourself, it backfires, because your brain looks for consistency to guide its decisions. Be reliable with yourself, and follow through on your promises. These four tips will get you started.

To orient your brain toward delayed gratification, start small. Create a goal so easy you can’t refuse it, waiting three minutes before eating dessert. Next time, improve by one percent – or in this case, you can improve by 33% and wait for four minutes. Incremental progress lets you build confidence with each small goal you achieve.

2. Make rules

You can also use delayed gratification as a “rule” for certain parts of your life where you may lack self control. If you’re a shopaholic, make a rule that you must wait three days – or a week – to buy that jacket you saw online. Or, make a rule that if you’ve spent more than five minutes debating a purchase, you don’t make it.

3. Practice gratitude

Reminding yourself of all that you have is a very effective way to train your brain to accept delayed gratification.

When you think of all the clothes you’re already lucky enough to have or the perfectly good car you own, you realize you don’t need that new stuff you’ve been coveting.

Instead of being disappointed you’re having a salad for lunch instead of a burger, be grateful that you have food to nourish your body. Delayed gratification comes naturally when you practice gratitude.

4. Remind yourself of your goals

What is delayed gratification for if not the ability to reach your biggest goals and dreams? You’re putting off that purchase to save for a home or retirement, and you’re having salad instead of that burger so that you can achieve the body of your dreams and have more energy. Keep a picture of your goal on your phone – you can even set it as your wallpaper – to remind yourself what you’re working toward. It will make delayed gratification that much easier.

There is a big difference between instant gratification vs. delayed gratification – one leads to short-term rewards that feel good in the moment but wear off quickly, while the other is a long-term life skill.

Instant gratification happens when you give in to your desires and get a boost of “happy hormones” dopamine and endorphins.

Delayed gratification is a strategy for reaching your goals and finding long-term fulfillment.

It’s proven that delayed gratification is a learned behavior. While some humans have better impulse control than others, which is related to delayed gratification, you can still take steps to change your mindset. You can work on your impulse control and train your brain to accept a larger reward later on, rather than taking the immediate reward.

There are several strategies you can work on that will help you increase your ability to wait for delayed gratification. Start small. Delay gratification for only a short amount of time, then increase the time incrementally.

You can also make rules regarding purchases, such as giving yourself a “waiting period” between when you see something you and when you buy it.

Finally, don’t forget to practice gratitude and remind yourself of your goals – there’s a reason you want delayed gratification.

According to Freud’s “pleasure principle,” it’s hardwired into us.

Instant gratification is the “id” (Freud’s name for instinctual desire) seeking immediate pleasure and is especially noticeable in children, who act on urges for food, water and play instinctively.

As we mature, we must develop delayed gratification skills in social situations – you wouldn’t grab a stranger’s snack just because you’re hungry. Yet the id persists in many parts of our lives, making dieting, saving money and other long-term goals difficult.

What is delayed gratification? It’s a valuable skill that takes practice and commitment to build. Get the support you need to overcome obstacles with a special trial offer on Tony Robbins’ Ultimate Edge.

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40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More ly to Succeed

The Secondary Process and Delayed Gratification

In the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel began conducting a series of important psychological studies.

During his experiments, Mischel and his team tested hundreds of children — most of them around the ages of 4 and 5 years old — and revealed what is now believed to be one of the most important characteristics for success in health, work, and life.

Let’s talk about what happened and, more importantly, how you can use it.

The Marshmallow Experiment

The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child.

The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow.

So the choice was simple: one treat right now or two treats later.

The researcher left the room for 15 minutes.

As you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was rather entertaining. Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door.

Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later.

And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time.

Published in 1972, this popular study became known as The Marshmallow Experiment, but it wasn’t the treat that made it famous. The interesting part came years later.

The Power of Delayed Gratification

As the years rolled on and the children grew up, the researchers conducted follow up studies and tracked each child’s progress in a number of areas. What they found was surprising.

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower lihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. (You can see the followup studies here, here, and here.)

The researchers followed each child for more than 40 years and over and over again, the group who waited patiently for the second marshmallow succeed in whatever capacity they were measuring. In other words, this series of experiments proved that the ability to delay gratification was critical for success in life.

And if you look around, you’ll see this playing out everywhere…

  • If you delay the gratification of watching television and get your homework done now, then you’ll learn more and get better grades.
  • If you delay the gratification of buying desserts and chips at the store, then you’ll eat healthier when you get home.
  • If you delay the gratification of finishing your workout early and put in a few more reps, then you’ll be stronger.

… and countless other examples.

Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.

This brings us to an interesting question: Did some children naturally have more self-control, and thus were destined for success? Or can you learn to develop this important trait?

What Determines Your Ability to Delay Gratification?

Researchers at the University of Rochester decided to replicate the marshmallow experiment, but with an important twist. (You can read the study here.)

Before offering the child the marshmallow, the researchers split the children into two groups.

The first group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences. For example, the researcher gave the child a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but never did. Then the researcher gave the child a small sticker and promised to bring a better selection of stickers, but never did.

Meanwhile, the second group had very reliable experiences. They were promised better crayons and got them. They were told about the better stickers and then they received them.

You can imagine the impact these experiences had on the marshmallow test. The children in the unreliable group had no reason to trust that the researchers would bring a second marshmallow and thus they didn’t wait very long to eat the first one.

Meanwhile, the children in the second group were training their brains to see delayed gratification as a positive. Every time the researcher made a promise and then delivered on it, the child’s brain registered two things: 1) waiting for gratification is worth it and 2) I have the capability to wait. As a result, the second group waited an average of four times longer than the first group.

In other words, the child’s ability to delay gratification and display self-control was not a predetermined trait, but rather was impacted by the experiences and environment that surrounded them.

In fact, the effects of the environment were almost instantaneous. Just a few minutes of reliable or unreliable experiences were enough to push the actions of each child in one direction or another.

What can you and I learn from all of this?

How to Become Better at Delaying Gratification

Before we go further, let’s clear one thing up: for one reason or another, the Marshmallow Experiment has become particularly popular. You’ll find it mentioned in nearly every major media outlet.

But these studies are just one piece of data, a small insight into the story of success.

Human behavior (and life in general) is a lot more complex than that, so let’s not pretend that one choice a four-year-old makes will determine the rest of his or her life.


The studies above do make one thing clear: if you want to succeed at something, at some point you will need to find the ability to be disciplined and take action instead of becoming distracted and doing what’s easy. Success in nearly every field requires you to ignore doing something easier (delaying gratification) in favor of doing something harder (doing the work and putting in your reps).

But the key takeaway here is that even if you don’t feel you’re good at delaying gratification now, you can train yourself to become better simply by making a few small improvements. In the case of the children in the study, this meant being exposed to a reliable environment where the researcher promised something and then delivered it.

You and I can do the same thing. We can train our ability to delay gratification, just we can train our muscles in the gym. And you can do it in the same way as the child and the researcher: by promising something small and then delivering. Over and over again until your brain says, 1) yes, it’s worth it to wait and 2) yes, I have the capability to do this.

Here are 4 simple ways to do exactly that:

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