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Delayed Gratification & Drug Use

Updated 19 April 2016 Written by Deborah Quinn
In the late 1960’s and 1970’s,  Stanford University professor Walter Mischel conducted a landmark study on deferred gratification, or the ability to delay gratification for the reward of a higher payoff.  Mischel and his team worked with 32 nursery school children, evenly divided between boys and girls ages 3-5.  In the Standford experiment, as it was called, the researcher’s video recorded each child as they were placed in a room without distractions and seated at a table with a desirable treat; often a marshmallow but sometimes a cookie.  The children were told they could eat the treat right then and there, but if they waited for 15 minutes, they would be given a second treat.

Whether and how long the children were able to wait varied widely. Some children were able to resist the temptation for up for 15 minutes, others for only 1 or 2. The average was 7-8 minutes. But the researchers noticed something interesting; those children that were able to delay eating the treat seemed to have strategies.  One child turned her back to the marshmallow, another kicked the table and a third starting singing. These tactics seemed to distract the children from the temptation in front of them and thereby delay their desire to eat it. These results were interesting in themselves, but what happened in the years that followed would change the way the results were viewed entirely.

When Dr. Mischel conducted these experiments, he happened to have 3 young daughters who were part of the test population. Many of the other test subjects were his daughters’  classmates and so as they grew older, Dr. Mischel heard about the students’ lives through his daughters. Some of the kids seemed to be doing well while others struggled. After a time, Mischel started to wonder if there might be a correlation between the nursery school children’s ability to delay gratification and their overall success in life.  He formally followed up with the test subjects 10 years after the initial experiment, right around the time they were taking SAT tests. The results were clear: the teens who as children had been able to delay gratification did better on the tests. Those who had eaten their marshmallow right away got poorer scores.

Mischel continued to follow the experiment participants for close to 40 years. He discovered that the correlation extended beyond test scores into almost all aspects of life including quality of relationships, body mass index, wealth, and employee satisfaction. Across the board, those who were able to delay gratification were more successful, healthier, and happier.

This is all well and good for those children who were able to delay eating their treat, but they were children; The average age in the experiment was just four years old. Is it possible to believe that willpower, the ability to wait, and by correlation, one’s success in life can be determined so early on? Is this set in stone by age four?

By taking the experiment one step further, Dr. Michel found it may be true that the children’ initial responses to temptation were changeable.  Remember that the children who were able to delay gratification all seemed to have a strategy. Dr. Mischel and his team noticed this and out of curiosity, they taught some of the children who had trouble waiting tools to hold out longer. In the moment of temptation, those tools of distraction worked, and kids with low staying power were able to turn into kids with high staying power.  

How does this relate to young people struggling with drugs or alcohol?

In the marshmallow study, researchers found that those children who caved to temptation early on were more likely to use drugs and alcohol. And for individuals struggling with substance use or abuse, the brain gets used to the instant reward the substance provides.  Instead of staying in the discomfort of social anxiety at a party, someone might quickly slam a few shots so that the feeling goes away.  Or maybe a young teen feels bored at a family event. Instead of learning to play with his cousins or listen to a story from his uncle, he smokes weed and is no longer bored. Drug use can trigger the pleasure and reward process in the brain and as the system learns to be instantly rescued by a substance from a challenging situation, the pattern is reinforced and it becomes more difficult to delay pleasure/reward in the future. In other words, the ability to delay gratification goes down.

Remember in the marshmallow study that the children who had distraction tactics were able to hold out longer? The same can be true for substance use.  Engaging in activities other than substance use can help an individual steer away from the instant gratification of a drug. Sometimes it might even seem silly, but the act of doing something that is simply different can make a huge difference. Just kicking at the leg of a table might not seem to make any sense, but it was enough to take a little girl’s mind off the pleasure in front of her, increasing her ability to wait. It may be that developing strategies such as these are the key to later success across a variety of measures.

At Sandstone Care, we believe treatment for drug abuse requires a multi-faceted approach that includes a variety of tools and activities. Community connections, psycho-education, and physical engagement can all serve to engage participants in ways that delay the desire to use, buying a little more time in the cycle of delayed gratification.  Some of the best rehab centers use this method of increasing coping skills and distress tolerance. Every time someone goes out to exercise, tries a new hobby, or talks to a therapist about their life, they are interrupting or distracting the pleasure/reward cycle and buying the possibility of a more healthy future.

Questions? Contact Us.