There is no doubt that saving money, eating healthy, and exercising are things we should all do to lead happy productive lives.  On the other hand – eating fast food and spending money frivolously are things that we shouldn’t do.  A few may try to argue here, but let’s say that we all agree with the statements above.  The question I’m interested in today is why people have such a hard time choosing the correct behaviors, even when they know in their minds what they should do.

It’s easy to recognize that the act of eating a greasy hamburger will not lead to long term happiness, while a different act, such as going to the gym, will lead to a healthier (and thus happier) life in the long term.  We know that going to the gym is the better choice – but all too often we find ourselves eating the hamburger.  The gym feels good over the long term, but the hamburger feels good right now.  What is it about the instant gratification of the burger that is so enticing?

The analyst side of me wants to break it down into an “expected value” equation.  If you’re presented with a simple A/B choice of eating a hamburger or going to the gym, it’s pretty easy to assign informal “pleasure values” to each choice.  Let’s say that the hamburger will lead to 10 pleasure “points” and the gym will lead to 80 pleasure “points” (on a made-up scale).  Looking at these assigned values – it seems obvious that the gym will win out every time.  The problem here is that you have to add uncertainty into the equation.  You know with 100% certainty that eating the hamburger will lead to 10 pleasure points right now.  However, you’re only 10% confident that going to the gym will lead to those 80 pleasure points (after all, you could fall off the treadmill and end up with -20 pleasure points).  Factoring in this uncertainty, the instant gratification of eating that hamburger is starting to look really good (10 pleasure points for the hamburger * 100% = 10 expected points; 80 pleasure points for the gym * 10% = 8 expected points – the burger wins here).

Thinking about this problem from a different angle – I wonder if instant gratification has always been such a big problem.  Thinking back through different generations, it seems logical that the need for instant gratification has become somewhat more pronounced as technology has advanced.  You have to figure, when the predominant form of communication was snail-mail, people were probably a bit more tolerant of delayed gratification.  Perhaps as technology has advanced it has somewhat deteriorated our self-control.  A thesis here could be that the need for instant response from our environment made the temptation of instant gratification all that more irresistible.

In addition to affecting individuals, instant gratification has also been somewhat of a problem for governments. It takes the financial know-how of an eight-year-old to look at the trend of our national debt and conclude that we’ve been somewhat suckered by instant gratification.  Why make tough compromises today when we can push them off for tomorrow?

Based on these thoughts, it’s my feeling that the patience and discipline to delay gratification will be the most important skills for the years to come.

What are your thoughts here?

Why is instant gratification so enticing?
  • Ari

    Seems to me like a big factor is that hamburgers are actually pleasurable while gym-going is more about avoiding ill-effects rather than actually experiencing anything good in the short term. If I had an uncertain but predictable likelihood of experiencing a cheeseburger-like pleasure from the gym I wouldn’t be nearly as fat as I am.

  • Brandon Atkinson

    According to this book …

    Somewhere in the late 80’s, parents in America got the idea that self-confidence was a leading predictor in the future success of their children. So everyone became a winner, every effort (regardless of how poorly executed) was a “great job”, and doing what was simply required was applauded as strongly as going above and beyond. So, we have a lot of folks in the Millennial Generation, who feel pretty darn good about themselves.

    Thumbs up, right? Well, kind’a. Problem is, what happens when these folks grow up and don’t have anyone patting them on the back saying “Great job!” for a mediocre effort? What happens when they get their butt kicked trying to achieve something really damn hard? What happens when they aren’t given something they “believe” they deserve? They tend to get offended, dispirited, blame others for their failure, and/or simply quit.

    What these parents misunderstood, argues the authors, is that the ability to work hard today for a benefit in the future is a much greater indicator of future success than self-confidence. And, by adopting child rearing techniques that over-indexed to building self-confidence, parents actually harmed their children’s capability for delayed gratification. Of course, the authors weren’t making a blanket statement about all Millennials, but it is an interesting line of thought.

  • Eh, I put it down to peak pleasure.

    Your “80 vs. 10” example is actually taking the integral of the benefit over time; the hamburger has high intensity for a short period of time, and the gym has low pleasure for a long period of time. e.g. general enjoyment of having a honed body.

    The problem is that the brain has a tendency to make decisions based on the amount of pleasure, and not the integral of pleasure over time.

    I don’t think putting it in a risk equation makes a lot of sense.

    I will say that: Yes, instant gratification has always been a problem. Unfortunately, as you note, the rise of technology means that fulfilling it becomes a lot easier – hence the number of people who have short “attention spans” and are always checking their smartphone, browsing the web, etc. Even if people wanted that kind of repeated gratification 40 years ago, it simply wasn’t achievable.

    That doesn’t suggest self-control so much as lack of opportunity.

    >takes the financial know-how of an eight-year-old to look at the trend of our national debt and conclude that we’ve been somewhat suckered by instant gratification

    What on earth does instant gratification have to do with the national debt? Unless you want to argue that we’ve shifted consumption forward (“gratification”) and have taken on debt to support that, but (i) that’s not where the debt has come from, and (ii) our national debt is at a rather safe level, it’s the long-term liabilities that are a financial problem (namely Medicare).

    I’m not seeing it.

  • Andrew

    Great point – i didn’t think about it that way. I suppose the allure of pleasure is inherently more enticing than avoidance of ill-effects. The thrill of driving a car fast (immediate pleasure) is unlikely to be out shined by the thrill of putting on a seatbelt (avoidance of ill-effects).

  • Andrew

    Thanks for reading and commenting here! I’ll have to check out the book. As a millennial myself I have to say this analysis feels right on. An example: throughout my school years I observed many of my contemporaries argue grades with teachers insisting that their sub-par work deserved an “A”. This type of over self-confidence and lack of self-awareness has certainly weakened our generation.

  • Andrew

    Love the concept of the integral of benefit. I agree that feels more correct that my puny expected value equation.

    Like the concept of technology making gratification more accesible. I wonder if the proliferation of advertising has had anything to do with this as well. Seeing others (in ads) constantly achieving gratification probably doesn’t help us in our fight to delay gratification.

    Fair point about the debt. That was probably a stretch.