Can you delay gratification with your digital devices?

by | Jun 6, 2011 | Blog | 4 comments

How well can you delay instant gratification? For example, can you practice the degree of self-control that Gustav managed? He posed next to his special Twitter dog treat without gobbling it up until released from his commands “stay” and “leave it.”

With this act, I was hardly trying to replicate the famous 1972 Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. But I was curious to see if a somewhat well-trained dog could resist temptation—of something I knew he really wanted.

What’s the point? Well, how well can you resist the temptation of checking your smart phone or other digital device these days? Even when you’re not hearing any buzzes, feeling any vibrations, or other cues, can you leave it alone? I admit I have extremely twitchy fingers. And I know I’m not alone.

Last month I took an informal poll of the 200+ participants at the start of my Tweet This: Leveraging social media for organizational change talk at the ACMP conference. Almost all of us had checked email or posted to a social networking site within the past 30 minutes. Many of us—including yours truly—had done so within the past five minutes. (I was able to restrain myself from checking during the rest of my talk. I’m not that boorish—at least right now. And I’m not coordinated enough to tweet and talk at the same time.)

The twitchiness got me wondering….Should someone update the Marshmallow study, focusing on adults using digital devices rather than children craving a delicacy such as marshmallows, Oreos, and pretzel sticks?

The purpose of the original Marshmallow study was to understand when children started to develop the ability to practice self-control and defer gratification.

The follow-up studies provided the more eye-opening results, which are worthwhile to consider regarding our seemingly addiction to digital devices. It turns out that the children who were able to delay gratification at the age of 4 (that is, wait 15 – 20 minutes for their one treat so they could then get two treats) managed better later on in life. When tested by the researchers, the adolescents were psychologically better adjusted, more dependable persons, and, as high school students, scored significantly greater scores on their SATs.

So what are the implications—if any—for us adults tethered to our digital devices? How are the distractions and preoccupations of the devices affecting us? Are we any less responsible? Are we as steadfast in our actions and attitudes? What about our powers of concentration? And what are we missing when we turn to our digital devices rather than to the people and world around us?

And if we’re always connected, are we getting the quiet time to think and reflect that the brain researchers say we need to tap into our deeper emotions? As Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and the article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, points out, “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy.”

And besides the mental health facets, what about the physical health? The eye strain? The Blackberry thumb syndrome?

Also, what are the implications of how we interact with other digital device addicts, especially in the work environment? How do we grab people’s attention to explain something or get their commitment to take action? How do we have meaningful discussions during meetings if everyone is taking fleeting looks (or scratch that, is absorbed in reading the screens of their iPhone, Blackberry or Android)? And who has empathy for anyone?

In the Marshmallow experiment, of the 600 kids who participated, one third were able to defer gratification long enough—15 to 20 minutes—to get the second marshmallow.

Can you exhibit that type of impulse control as an adult?


  1. David Guthridge

    Excellent article. This topic is NOT disappearing any time soon. Are persons’s responses to and opinions of those using technology during a meeting or while in direct conversation generationally based? Will today’s twenty-somethings be more tolerant than the Baby Boomer who may expect someone’s full attention? People appear to respond better to someone taking notes with a pen and legal pad, rather than understanding that a person might be typing notes in their Blackberry.
    Good discussion.

  2. Jill

    Great post, Liz, and a topic that’s been much on my mind of late, mostly because I have caught myself texting and checking email in the middle of meetings and other people’s presentations — something I swore I’d never do because I used to know that it’s extremely rude! But it’s become a nervous tick among just about everyone. The moment there is an awkward moment or a dull few seconds in a meeting, our minds crave stimulation *immediately* so out come the devices.

    You raise an excellent point about empathy taking a hit as a result of this trend. Scary to consider…

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Jill and David, thanks for your comments. Funny story about this from the IABC World Conference this past week. I was listening to the keynoter Jonah Lehrer and taking notes with pen and paper in the ballroom when I got a bit bored. I was about to look at my Blackberry when Jonah started talking about the Marshmallow experiment and then showed 40-year-old movie clips of the 4-year-olds trying to restrain themselves. (Just wonderful!) I was riveted the rest of his talk. I asked him about this, and he said he thinks we’re hurting not just our empathy, but our creativity too because we don’t day dream as much.

  4. Toni Hughes

    Been reading more of your blogs. This one certainly struck a chord! Its nuts. When I am riding with someone, I get a chance to look around at the other drivers much more. Its amazing how many people are on their cell phones! And yes, it is the ringing, beeping, buzzing phone that seems to indicate urgency where, usually, there is none. I learned years ago, when clients were in a panic, that I had to react quickly, and usually for a good reason. I got into a bad habit. I now sometimes just turn it off for a while! I sometimes just leave it at home if I’m doing a quick errand. As far as empathy, well, it could be generational, but perhaps not. I see people of all ages multitasking on the smart phone in the middle of a conversation. EQ, emotional intelligence, uses instant gratification as one of its markers, much like the marshmallow experiment. Those that can restrain themselves are among those with a higher EQ.

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