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Delayed Gratification – Neuroscientists Map the Brain

The latest issue of Newsweek magazine has an interesting article about a person’s ability to delay gratification. A group of neuroscientists and psychologists asked volunteers if they’d prefer to take $20 now or wait for more money from $20.25 to $110 at some point in the future. The scientists discovered that the brains of those individuals who were willing to delay gratification reacted the same whether they were thinking of taking the money now or waiting for a later point in time. However, in those volunteers who chose immediate gratification the brain activity patterns were different based on the options presented.

What I found most interesting in this article was a description of a 1960s study called the marshmallow experiment. In this study psychologists placed a marshmallow in front of a 4-year-old. “If the kids waited to eat the marshmallow until the experimenter, who stepped out of the room, returned in a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows.”

The study continued to track these children until their 40s and found that those who waited to eat the marshmallow scored higher on their SATs. “The reward delayers were also less likely to be obese, to have become addicted to illegal drugs, and to be divorced – outcomes that are more likely in people who go for immediate gratification.”

My husband and I have actually talked about being born with the ability to delay gratification because we’ve both had the tendency to save since we were quite small. While my brother and my husband’s cousin grew up spending money the minute they earned it, we both piled the money into our piggy banks even though we didn’t have specific goals in mind. We’ve often talked about how strange it seemed for them to spend money so quickly and how natural it seemed for us not to do the same.

The Newsweek article also mentioned that those individuals with good short term memories are typically better savers because “achieving a goal requires keeping it in mind”. It’s a funny thought, but it actually makes perfect sense. If you can’t keep your eye on the prize, then you certainly won’t be able to continue to save for it.

Through experimentation psychologists and neuroscientists have found that individuals can become better savers when specific portions of their brains are stimulated. They also found that an injection of oxytocin makes people more patient and therefore more willing to delay gratification. According to the researchers “this tells us that people who are happier and have greater social support save more.”

I certainly think that happiness is a factor of spending. If you are already content with what you have and own then there is no reason to buy other items you don’t need. However, if you aren’t feeling particularly happy with yourself, your weight, or your life you may spend money to fill the void. If you don’t have a solid social support group then you might feel that buying things will help you attain more friends.

The end of the article questions whether today’s generation will have a more difficult time saving money and delaying gratification, because technology places everything directly at their fingertips and ensures that they don’t have to wait long for anything. That’s an interesting question. Based on the research discussed throughout the article I would imagine that those born with the ability to delay gratification would continue to be able to do so. However, it seems to be a question of nature versus nurture. If technology is always providing people with what they want when they want it, then it’s plausible to think that the brain may begin expecting immediate gratification and thus overrule the tendency to delay gratification.