Instant Gratification: The Psychology of Self-Sabotage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Slight Edge" by Jeff Olson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why are humans wired to prioritize instant gratification? How does instant gratification lead us astray from our goals?

Human nature is embedded in an “immediate-return environment” inherited from early humans and the animal kingdom, where survival and goals were daily concerns. These days, however, instant gratification works against us, not for us.

In this article, we’ll explore the psychology of instant gratification, why it’s so hard to resist, and how it leads us astray from achieving success.

The Power of Delayed Gratification

The number one obstacle to achieving our goals is neglecting to take the small actions that support them. This obstacle occurs because it’s very easy to procrastinate small, important, but less noticeable actions in favor of more prominent or exciting actions (for example, extending your gap year instead of starting college). We simply don’t feel as motivated without clear validation of our efforts, which small steps often don’t provide—instead, we want instant gratification. 

However, Olson argues that the more we neglect small actions, the harder it is to reverse course and move back in the direction of our goals. For example, one cigarette will not kill you, but there’s a good chance a cigarette or two a day for twenty years eventually will, and by the time you realize they’re hurting you, it may be too late to reverse it. 

The Marshmallow Experiment and the Psychology of Instant Gratification

As Olson notes, at the root of this obstacle is our need for instant gratification: The wish to feel good and rewarded now sabotages our success by driving us to neglect simple actions that have no immediate reward. It follows, therefore, that learning to delay gratification—in other words, accept that we won’t feel good until later but we need to complete small actions now regardless—will stop this obstacle in its tracks and lead to success.

Research confirms that the ability to delay gratification is a powerful tool for success. For example, in the 1960 Marshmallow Experiment, researchers offered children the choice between eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting to eat the marshmallow and receiving a second marshmallow as a reward for their patience. Further researchers conducted follow-up studies on these children and found that the children who had the patience to wait (or to delay gratification) grew up to have less stress, better physical health, stronger ability to socialize, and higher test scores. The follow-ups continued for over 40 years, and consistently, the children who chose to delay gratification experienced greater success in their lives than the children who chose not to delay gratification. 

The Consequences of Succumbing to Instant Gratitfication

Our culture is so enamored with rags to riches stories that we too often buy into the illusion of instant success and fail to develop the discipline of applying real work to our goals. If you are looking for the instant gratification of a “ magic bullet” instead of looking to make steady progress, you will remain stuck in inaction, desperately hoping for your big break. 

For example, consider the musician who seems to skyrocket to fame overnight. In reality, they practiced every day for most of their lives, performed in bars and nightclubs for years with no recognition, and had several failed albums before “hitting the big time.” The media doesn’t share every part of their story, and as a result, young musicians don’t understand the work that is necessary to achieve the success they want. Without being aware of the work necessary, aspiring “stars” either don’t put in the work, give up too soon, or both. 

The Neurological Consequences of Focusing on Instant Gratification

Expecting the instant gratification of a magic bullet does more than just prevent you from doing the hard work necessary for achieving your goals. It also has a long-term negative effect on the way your brain works

The brain is already set up to favor instant gratification over delayed gratification, releasing dopamine in a jolt of pleasure whenever we do something that instantly meets our needs. The more dopamine we get, the more we want it, and the more we seek out experiences that will give us that instant hit. This creates addictive, pleasure-seeking habits and makes it harder for you to control your impulses, leading you to seek even more instant gratification. This vicious cycle leads to chronic difficulties delaying gratification, making it harder and harder for you to develop the discipline to work towards your greatest potential for success.
Instant Gratification: The Psychology of Self-Sabotage

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  • Why some people fail and some succeed despite having the same tools
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  • How you're getting in the way of your own growth by neglecting simple things

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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