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Deferred gratification or delayed gratification is the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants. This attribute is known by many names, including impulse control, will power, self control and, in economics, "low" time preference. In formal terms of accounting, an individual should calculate net present value of future rewards and defer near-term rewards of lesser value. Extensive research has shown that animals don't do this, but instead apply hyperbolic discounting, so this problem is fundamental to human nature.

Conventionally, good impulse control is considered a personality trait. Daniel Goleman has suggested 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. Psychological research (along the lines of Walter Mischel's famous Marshmallow Experiment) indicates that good impulse control may be important for academic achievement and life success.


Kate Dawson has argued that people with poor impulse control suffer from "weak ego boundaries". This term originates in Sigmund Freud's theory of personality where the id is the pleasure principle, the ego is the reality principle, and the superego is the morality 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 tests

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 well known test of this concept conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University and discussed by 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 significantly higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test years later.[2]

See also


  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 (press +.


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