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Delay of Gratification and Spirituality
Nov 1, 2011

We are living in a world in which everything changes very quickly; throughout the world immediacy rules. Industrial companies want to produce more goods in a shorter time and aim to deliver their goods as rapidly as possible; young people want to get richer faster and people choose the fastest way to get where they are going. With everything happening as soon as possible, impatience has now become a part of popular culture. Just take a look at those slogans and popular sayings: "Just do it!", "Get it now!", "Immediate satisfaction!" or "Buy now!" Despite all these external incentives that prioritize immediacy, humans have a personality and character that is relatively stable despite environmental influences. Psychologists have attempted to discover which predictors can provide information for the future, indicating some possible ways to improve the quality of our lives.

People with different personality traits respond differently to immediacy-provoking incentives. A critical trait that should be given particular attention is the delay of gratification. The delay of gratification is an interesting concept because it is connected with many other widely-accepted ideas in psychology. Sigmund Freud (1949/1989), for example, conceptualized human personality as being under the influence of the id, which represents human needs and desires, and the superego, which resembles the social restrictions that influence the id. The ego represents the mechanism that manages the two in order to maintain psychological health. Due to the relative consistency of personality traits, we are able to predict human characteristics and behavior even from an early age.

The ability to delay gratification indicates a special potential for deciding what is good for oneself in the short and long term; something that is fundamental for self-management. We have empirical evidence which demonstrates that the delay of gratification is related to higher intelligence, ability to resist temptation, greater social responsibility, and commitment to tasks (see Mischel, Shoda & Rodriguez, 1989). Contemporary social problems such as eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, impulsive and aggressive behaviors, and behavioral disorders underline the pivotal role of the ability to delay gratification for a healthy, balanced, and successful life. While resisting and delaying temptations is considered to be a symptom of "ego strength" and "impulse control," the failure to do so is regarded as a factor that underlies psychopathology (Mowrer & Ullman, 1945).

In a study with forty-two sixth graders, researchers asked children to complete a task (shooting a ray-gun) in a game; this task served as a measure of temptation allowing the observers to assess how the children adhered to the rules of the game and how they cheated. They designed the game in such a way that unless the child cheated and violated the rules of the game he/she would fail. In this sense, the game created a double approach-avoidance conflict as the children were eager to win (approach) and had to comply with the rules (avoidance). After promising several rewards (marksmen, sharpshooter, and expert badge) according to their performance in the game, the supervisor left the room so that children can behave in a natural way. It was expected that children who are more highly motivated would break the rules to obtain gratification and those who were less able to delay gratification would be less resistant to temptation. There were 17 items connected to measuring the delay of gratification, each requiring choosing a smaller/less valuable reward immediately or a larger/more valuable item later. For example, they were asked to choose either "a small notebook now or a larger notebook in one week." The results were remarkable: The cheaters were more likely to be unable to delay gratification, asking for the rewards immediately rather than those who were patient enough to wait for a better reward. Those who were able to delay gratification (and therefore selected a better reward at a later time) waited longer to begin cheating than their friends who asked the rewards immediately. Also, those who were more successful in the game tended to delay the reward to get a better reward later than those who were less successful.

Following the progress of these students, Shoda, Mischel and Peake (1990) collected their SAT scores, as an indication of their academic and cognitive competency, and parental ratings of those children who differed in their response to gratification more than ten years ago. The researchers found that adolescents with higher SAT scores were more likely to wait longer for the gratification. Moreover, they were better able to cope with frustration and stress in adolescence. This result has been supported by finds in more recent studies as well (Ayduk, 1999).

The ability to delay gratification is much more than a personal trait. Mischel (1961) investigated the relationship between social responsibility and the delay of gratification. This makes a great deal of sense, as people who are able to put others' welfare before their own interests can behave altruistically and be socially responsible. As expected, children who choose the delayed reward were more socially responsible than those who preferred the immediate reward. Likewise the proportion of children preferring the delayed reward was higher in the non-delinquent group than the delinquent group.

In a recent study, Wulfert et al (2002) investigated the possibility of using the delay of gratification as an indicator of self-regulation in adolescents. The adolescents who were invited to participate in the study were offered either a smaller but immediate fee or a larger fee for one week's participation. Two groups of students were compared in terms of use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana use, as well as self-perception and academic achievement. The results were interesting: those adolescents who selected the immediate reward, and thus failing to delay gratification, reported a higher use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. They also had a lower self-concept and were less successful at school.

As with many other psychological concepts, the delay of gratification also has a strong association with the religion and the basic principles of religion. For example, in all three monotheistic religions, an afterlife is promised to every human being. Those who avoid the seductive features of life are promised a heaven, which is described with all its attractions being beyond anything that can be compared to this life. God asks people to restrain themselves from temporary and prohibited acts in this life in exchange for an unending life where pure bliss is to be attained, like children who have been promised better candy or larger and better toys if they are patient. Thus, people who are patient and able to delay their gratification will be more responsive to religious limitations and directions. Worldly benefits represent the immediate rewards, while delayed responses can be connected to the benefits in the afterlife; in this way, everyone makes some choice between the two. So, it is possible to argue that the ability to delay gratification is a very good predictor for religiosity.

Different religions underline the importance of delay of gratification. We see a clear connection between the delay of gratification and intelligence or cognitive competence in several verses of Qur'an: "And the present, worldly life is nothing but a play and pastime, and better is the abode of the Hereafter for those who keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety. Will you not, then, reason and understand?" (6:32), "However, certainly the reward of the Hereafter is better for those who believe and keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety" (12:57), and "Those who are patient (persevering in adversity, worshipping God, and refraining from sins) will surely be given their reward without measure" (39:10). In the Bible, later happiness is encouraged and patience is appreciated: "Those who shed tears as they plant will shout for joy when they reap the harvest" (Psalm, 126); or "Know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope" (Romans, 5).

It is also important to note that religions are not only concerned with the afterlife. They regulate our lives at all times, and direct people to behave in a particular manner. Thus, religious principles increase the quality of life. The contribution of the delay of gratification to the quality of life is something that we should be aware of. A religious education in school or family provided in the early years of life can educate individuals in how to delay their desires and gratification toward their goals in the long-run, allowing them to have a balanced and healthy life. Religious teaching involves patience and resistance against extravagant worldly comfort, suggesting sacrifice and dedication in this world to earn a better life after death. With such discipline, people will also be able to manage their own life more effectively, because even long-term benefits in the worldly life can be gained if one expends time, effort, and energy.

The importance of the delay of gratification seems to become more obvious given the scandals in the lives of eminent people who are successful in arts, sciences, sports, or politics; such people have failed to delay some of their desires and instant gratification. From another perspective, although they had financial and social freedom, they lost their inner freedom as they became passive responders to their instincts and desires. After centuries of physical slavery, which benefitted some classes to the detriment of another, the modern world has created a new form of slavery which pits the human mind and reason against their instinct. In this system, amusement parks, substance addiction, adultery, violence and a number sources of satisfaction have been given great value; people have simply became dependent and demand gratification. This sort of enslavement is no less dangerous than the traditional slavery; the modern "slaves" seem to be content with their status and demand even more. Under these circumstances, people tended to spend less time thinking, reasoning, feeling, and understanding themselves, their environment, and other people.

The delay of gratification allows modern people to manage their time, goals, tasks, and responsibilities, all of which are keys to success. People who resist their desires have real freedom and are able to shape their own lives. It actually makes people control themselves, and become the rulers of their lives. From this point of view, the delay of gratification as a psychological personality attribute as well as a means of religious instruction-reveals an essential principle of happiness in this world and in the next world.


  • Ayduk, O. N. (1999). Impact of Self-Control Strategies on the Link Between Rejection Sensitivity and Hostility: Risk Negotiation Through Strategic Control, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York.
  • Freud, S. & Strachey, J. (1949/1989). An outline of psychoanalysis. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.
  • Mischel, W. (1961). Delay of gratification, need for achievement and acquiescence in another culture. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62, 543-552.
  • Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and social competence from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26, 978-986.
  • Wulfert, E., Block, J. A., Santa Ana, E., Rodriguez, M. L., Colsman, M. (2002). Delay of gratification: Impulsive choices and problem behaviors in early and late adolescence. Journal of Personality, 70, 533-552.