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Delay of gratification or deferred gratification or delayed gratification is the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants. This ability is usually considered to be a personality trait which is important for life success. Daniel Goleman has suggested that it is an important component of emotional intelligence. People who lack this trait are said to need instant gratification and may suffer from poor impulse control.


Psychoanalysts have argued that people with poor impulse control suffer from "weak ego boundaries". The term comes from Sigmund Freud's theory of personality where the id is the pleasure principle, the superego is the morality principle, and the ego is the reality principle. The ego's job is to satisfy the needs of the id while respecting other people's needs. According to this theory, a person who is unable to delay gratification may possess an unbalanced id that the ego and superego are unable to control.

Causes and testsEdit

Poor impulse control may be related to biological factors in the brain. Researchers have found that children with fetal alcohol syndrome are less able to delay gratification.[1]

The marshmallow experiment is a famous test of this concept conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University and discussed by Daniel Goleman in his popular work. In the 1960s, a group of four-year olds were given a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.[2]

Another famous impulse control test is the "gift delay," in which children were shown a nicely wrapped gift but told they must complete a puzzle before opening it. Researchers then calculated a "delay score" based on how long the children held out. When independent examiners interviewed the test subject years later, they found that boys who had not delayed were "irritable" and that the girls were "sulky." In contrast, the patient boys were "attentive" and the girls "competent." [3]

Internet surveyEdit

Currently, a free self-report Delaying Gratification Inventory[4] is available online as a part of a research project conducted by Central Michigan University. The survey describes trait differences in the tendency to delay gratification along six categories as well as a global domain. The survey provides custom personality feedback on this trait.

See alsoEdit


  1. Williams, B. F.; Howard, V. F.; McLaughlin, T. F. (1994). Fetal alcohol syndrome: Developmental characteristics and directions for further research. Education & Treatment of Children, 17, 86-97.
  2. Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978–986.
  3. Slate Explainer
  4. Paths to Happiness: Delaying Gratification Inventory
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