Want a Marshmallow?

A few friends and I recently watched the second episode of the third season of Downton Abbey on a laptop computer screen, through a questionable foreign language web site, as the season is not yet out in the United States. We were unwilling to wait for legitimate streaming video or the PBS airing. Streaming video sites such as Hulu are the focus of debates on the changing expectations of consumers and the resulting effects on revenue streams. However, the concurrent societal shift towards instant gratification does not receive nearly as much focus yet has potentially negative ramifications for society and the course of individuals’ lives.

Instant gratification is not a new concept for Americans. Fast food restaurants have been taking advantage of a desire for instant gratification for years. However, it seems that modern life is uniquely organized to meet every desire as quickly as possible. Laptop computers, tablets, and smart phones provide access to the world through the internet anywhere and anytime. Wikipedia, Kindle, YouTube, apps, Hulu, DVR, and one-click ordering all allow any question, craving, or moment of boredom to be met and filled before it has time to diminish and without any prior planning.

Instant gratification seems to have become both a given and a right, though one that has to be justified against criticism. One blogger describes the mentality as a part of the millennial experience, “consider how you would respond to things if you grew up experiencing feedback or rewards after everything you did” (Dziadul 2010). In addition, she believes that receiving a car with a driver’s license at age sixteen and immediate responses to emails and tests have become natural expectations for many people. Another writer treats it as a joke, but still a defining part of his life; “All I know is I don’t have any interest in anything on this planet that cannot, or will not, satisfy my immediate desires” (Bruns 2000). Greg Bruns recognizes in his blog that instant gratification does not necessarily shape a life in positive ways but it is important force.

Unfortunately, the shift towards constant immediate gratification has negative effects. In the 1970s, Walter Mischel conducted a study of delayed gratification on elementary school children using marshmallows. In later follow-up studies, he found that good impulse control was positively correlated with academic achievement and success in later life (Lehrer 2009). The low-delayers in his study had more behavioral issues and problems throughout life.

James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University, believes that “The mobile-payment technology can create a desensitizing and seductive purchase experience” (Richtel 2007). A consumer does not have to think about his bank statement but with just a click adds a purchase to his credit card. Carl Richards of the New York Times worries that “Along the way, we bought into the idea that shopping and spending money makes us happy and helps form our identities” (2010). The result of our choice to make a quick purchase or to eat a marshmallow without waiting is more than the temporarily pleasure, it reinforces a low-delay mentality and chips away at useful life skills.

Planning and prioritizing must be practiced to become an integral part of life. They allow us to balance pleasures with responsibilities and to organize a varied and fulfilling life. Yet they are discarded when one gives in to a sudden impulse. Watching streaming video for hours can quickly take over time that could have been used for studying. The purchase of a plasma television can derail the plans to pay for a college education (Richards 2010). Walter Mischel is now working with the KIPP academy in Philadelphia to try to teach children self-control and waiting skills, hoping that they will become long-term habits (Lehrer 2009).

Technology and the opportunities it brings can be wonderful. That does not mean that we should blindly accept it without considering the ramifications. Instant gratification is great in the short term but it can lead to unexpected and negative impacts on our lives. Consider taking a little extra time before you give in to an impulse to “click and a buy” (Richtel 2007).
Dziadul, Kristin. “Millennials Need Instant Gratification.” Social Media Today. 6 March, 2010. Web. 4 October, 2012.
Bruns, Greg. “Instant Gratification.” Identity Theory. 11 October, 2000. Web. 4 October, 2012
Lehrer, Jonah. “DON’T! The Secret of Self Control.” The New Yorker. 18 May, 2009.
Richtel, Matt. “At Starbucks, Songs of Instant Gratification.” The New York Times. 1 October, 2007.
Richards, Carl. “Four Ways to Stop Gorging on Gratification.” The New York Times. 13 December, 2010.

Emily Muth

Emily Muth is a former Master's candidate in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown and the Lead Blogger for gnovis. Her academic focus is on the strategic use of social media and digital communications. She loves to read, travel, and post photos of delicious food.

  • Paulina

    This is such an interesting topic. It reminds me of a quote I’ve heard:

    “The smartest, most successful people are the ones who learned how to delay gratification.”

    Our instant-world is really affecting our emotional intelligence and self-control. That’s not something we think about every day, but is definitely relevant and should be taken into consideration