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  • Writer's pictureZiggurat Realestatecorp

The Downside Of Delayed Gratification

We’re all told that it pays to be disciplined in our spending and consumption. But the advice can backfire.

THE PROVERB says, “Good things come to those who wait.” But could there be such a thing as too much waiting? At first blush, that might seem an absurd question. We are told repeatedly about the benefits of delayed gratification, of being more disciplined and less hedonistic. The grasshopper and the ant, and all that. And no doubt, for many that lesson is an important one: Learning to save for the future and to know our spending priorities can be extremely useful. But, in reality, many people lean in the opposite direction. They are a bit too disciplined, and have a nasty habit of putting off the sweet things in life—potentially until it’s too late. It’s a lesson that is just as important to learn as the lesson of delayed gratification.

A candle we never smell

My interest in the subject started in graduate school, when I wondered about the possessions that we all have lying around the home, that we like just fine, but we never use. Why does it feel like we are taking ordinary things—an inexpensive bottle of wine, a basic T-shirt, a nice-smelling candle—and treating them as if they are too special to use?

So, I joined with Jonah Berger at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a series of experiments to explore this pattern of behavior and the psychology underlying it. In one experiment, we had participants imagine buying a bottle of wine. We asked half of them to imagine that they considered opening the bottle one night but then decided not to, while the other half didn’t imagine this scenario. We later asked the participants how special the wine seemed and how likely they would be to open it at the next available occasion.

Those who had imagined holding off on opening it just once were less likely to open it at the next available chance. And this was because they had started to think that they had been saving the wine, making it more special, more fitting for a fancy occasion. We also asked participants when would seem like the right occasion for the bottle.

While participants who hadn’t imagined passing it up gave exceedingly ordinary descriptions—a normal Tuesday night, drinks with friends—those who had imagined passing it up once gave ratcheted-up occasions: a birthday dinner, celebrating a promotion, a first date. All of our participants were imagining the exact same, completely ordinary, bottle of wine. But the mere act of saying “not now, maybe later” triggered an instinct to keep putting it off, and waiting for a better moment.

An endless cycle

We found this pattern time and again, and we ended up labeling it the “specialness spiral”: When people decide not to use something at one point—for whatever reason— the possession will start to feel more special. And as it feels more special, you want to protect it and wait for a slightly better occasion.

So you don’t use it, again, and it becomes a little bit more special. And every time you don’t use it, it becomes more tempting to hold out for an even better occasion. The less you use it, the more special it feels, and the cycle continues. The implications for the way we spend money—and the pleasure we get from our purchases—are profound.

We all know the high price we pay if we spend without thinking about long term consequences, just to get the rush of immediate gratification. But our findings suggest that specialness spirals also can take a toll on our emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing. It can prevent us from enjoying the things we buy and the experiences that await us. What’s more, when specialness spirals take hold, not only are we waiting for an occasion that may never arise, but we are also accumulating clutter.

Eventually, this can turn into hoarding. By not using our possessions until beyond their “best by” date, so to speak, we’re wasting our own money, contributing waste to the environment, and furthering cycles of overproduction.

The wrong head space

Saving something for a special occasion isn’t the only reason we may fail to take advantage of the opportunities around us. We might also believe we’re not in “the right head space” to savor or enjoy something nice. In this case, we aren’t delaying enjoying something we’ve bought, but delaying buying it in the first place.

Consider this scenario: You are in the middle of an extremely busy time of year, and you have an unused gift certificate for a massage, which you can book for the next day. Would you do it? Even though an opportunity like this might be exactly what would rejuvenate and relax you, you perhaps wouldn’t go ahead with it, reasoning that because there is too much going on in your life, you wouldn’t really be able to enjoy it.

In a recent paper, I’ve looked at people’s reluctance to treat themselves to purchases and experiences that make them happy— something we call “self-gifting”— because they feel too constrained.

With my co-authors Kelly Gullo Wight of Indiana University and Keisha Cutright of Duke University, we conducted a series of experiments and found a robust pattern: When we’re pressed for time, low on cash, or even burned out mentally, we tend to eschew opportunities to care for ourselves through small purchases and activities— be it lighting a candle, listening to music, or having a small sweet treat.

And this is because when people are feeling constrained, they assume that they wouldn’t be able to derive the enjoyment or relaxation benefits. So they pass on these opportunities. The unfortunate irony, though, is that these small self-gifting moments are precisely what will lift our spirits in times of stress.

Our experiments support this. In one, we had half of our participants feeling time-crunched, and the other half feeling time-abundant. Then everyone engaged in a self-gifting experience—watching a short, relaxing YouTube video— and we measured how they felt before and after.

While everyone experienced a lift in their mood and stress-reduction from watching the video, it was the time-constrained participants who experienced the biggest well-being benefits. Contrary to the expectation, going through this moment of me-time—right at the moment they felt most crunched for time— made them feel less stressed and more relaxed.

Not now

Much like with the specialness spirals, there seems to be a deeply ingrained drive to push off the sweet things in life. We should wait for a better occasion. We should wait until we’re in a better mood and have more bandwidth.

Wait, wait, wait. The reason, perhaps, is something fundamental and intrinsic: For many of us, it just doesn’t feel OK to take advantage of something great that’s right in front of us. We are told to strive to be the ant, not the grasshopper. But my research shows that a more socially acceptable, highly disciplined, delay of- gratification way of operating can carry a high price as well. It can take a toll in terms of well-being and stress, and puts us at risk of falling into cycles of overconsumption and accumulation.

More significantly, we lose out on the chance to invest our time and money in experiences that will enrich us, fulfill us, and create lasting memories to sustain us in the years to come. Delayed gratification has long been put on a pedestal. By all means keep it there. But maybe also understand that it isn’t always the answer.

Source: WSJ

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