Self-Control and Decision Making: Balancing Immediate Gratification with Long-term Goals

Team IIBP Anveshan, Business Psychology, Development Centers, Employee Engagement, Issue 38, Volume 4

Ms Gayathiri Sridharan

Hope we all would have enjoyed watching the “Marshmallow Experiment” in YouTube. If you missed it somehow, watch it before reading further: This Marshmallow experiment was carried out during

1960 by the Stanford professor Walter Mischel. The experiment tested the power of self-control in hundreds of kids ( aged around 4-5 years) against the instant gratification of eating the marshmallow in front of them rather than waiting for an opportunity of receiving the second marshmallow after period of 15 minutes.

You would have laughed over the footage of the children who wiggled and bounced in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually falling into the temptation of instant gratification. And would have also watched how some children were able to manage the entire time and enjoy two marshmallows as a reward for their self-control.

The results of the study was published in 1972. But the interesting part of the experiment came years later. The researchers followed up with the children for more than 40 years and over again and again they found that the children who had the self-control to forego instant gratification were having better SAT scores, lower level of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better social skills and better response to stress.

The above experiments are just a tip of the iceberg explaining how success usually comes to someone

who decides to go through the pain of self-control over instant gratification.

Now, you might be wondering did some children naturally had more self-control ? or could anyone train themselves to be more self-disciplined?

Well, before moving further into the training part Yes ! every one of us can develop the skill of self-control), lets first understand what happens in our brain while making decision upon conflicting options i.e., instant gratification Vs long term goals. For example, choosing to write this article Vs sleeping in this cozy rainy weather. According to research from Princeton University, there are two areas of the brain that gets into work while having conflicting options : one that is associated with our emotions and the other with abstract reasoning.

The researchers studied 14 Princeton University students. The students were offered choices between gift certificates ranging from $5 to $40 in value. They were told that larger amounts that could be obtained if they could wait for some period, say for example from two weeks to six weeks. During the process, magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI- a procedure that shows which parts of the brain are active) of the students were analysed.

The study showed that decisions involving the possibility of immediate reward activated parts of the brain that are associated with emotion. In contrast, all the decisions the students made — whether short- or long-term — activated brain systems that are associated with abstract reasoning. The researchers concluded that impulsive choices happen when the emotional part of our brains triumphs over the logical one.

Based on the study, researchers stated that when emotions are triggered, it is hard to resist. We act impulsively because the dopamine’s in our brain are all set to fire up.

So, how do we train our brain to behave without becoming a prey to the impulsivity?

To find out the answer, researchers replicated the marshmallow experiment, but with an important twist. Before offering the marshmallows, they split the kids into two groups: Group 1 where the researcher gave the children a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but never did. Group 2: The kids were promised bigger crayons by the researchers and they received them.

Through this study, the researchers demonstrated that Group 2 kids did better in the marshmallow test because their brain have registered two things:

1) waiting for gratification is worth it and

2) I have the capability to wait.

This concludes that the child’s display of self-control is not a natural trait, but rather was impacted by the experiences and environment that surrounded them.

We can create the same kind of environment to train our brain by promising small and then delivering it again and again until our brains say:

1) yes, it’s worth it to wait and

2) yes, I have the capability to do this.

For example, If you want to build a exercise habit (long term goal) over watching Netflix show (instant gratification), you need not join a Gym immediately. Just exercise for one minute every day. Prove to yourself that you can stick to something small for 30 days(promising small and delivering).

Once you are on a roll and remain consistent, your brain will start choosing Exercise over Netflix. Remember, consistency is the key.


Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., & Aslin, R. N. (2013). Rational snacking: young children’s decision making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition, 126(1), 109–114.

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Zeiss, A. R. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of personality and social psychology, 21(2), 204–218.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. I. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science (New York, N.Y.), 244(4907), 933–938.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Peake, P. K. (1988). The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(4), 687–696.

Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental psychology, 26(6), 978.