Delayed gratification is a big deal in human psychology and underpins many aspects of human culture, from social interaction to religion. The seminal work on this was the 1972 Stanford marshmallow experiment. Pre-schoolers were tempted with a small reward (a marshmallow or a pretzel) immediately or a doubled reward after waiting 15 minutes.
Some of the kids succumbed to the idea of the tasty treat immediately, others instead remained stoic until they could get the bigger prize. Follow-up studies showed at first that kids with more willpower had better life-outcome – but more work showed that a huge factor there was their socio-economic background.
The background factor also played a role in the willpower itself. We can easily understand that it is easier to resist temptations and trust an authority figure if you come from a privileged background. New work published last year, co-authored by the original author of the experiment, Walter Mischel – showed that the test itself doesn’t actually have predictive power when it comes to self-regulation in midlife.
So whether or not you had self-control as a kid doesn’t make a huge difference, but understanding why we occasionally (or maybe often) can’t resist temptations is important. And this extends beyond humans – delayed gratification has been tested in several other species to understand if it is a strategy that is common in the natural world.
A famous and recent example of this is the discovery that cuttlefish also have the self-control to pass the delayed gratification test. They didn’t get the option between one or two marshmallows, but they had to choose between getting some crab immediately or waiting 50 to 130 seconds before getting shrimp, a food that they prefer to eat.
In animals, delayed gratification has also been seen in non-human apes, parrots, and some species of the crow family. Adding cuttlefish to the mix gives us a very complex view of why this behavior happens across multiple species. Given that cuttlefish are not collaborative, their ability to wait for better food might be a byproduct of their hunting strategies. Cuttlefish often sit and wait for prey, so they might just be good at being patient.
We do not yet have enough data to understand the underlying mechanism behind delayed gratification in the animal kingdom, humans included. A recent review of 52 studies highlighted that there has not been a diverse enough range of animals studied to come to firm conclusions. And within individuals of the same species, there is a lot of variation, just like we see in humans.
It is difficult to dissociate the marshmallow test from other social factors in humans, so looking at animals might provide some clues on what processes are behind decision making between instant gratification and future reward. Or maybe Wilde was right that ultimately the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.