The Problem With Instant Gratification

Instant gratification is convenient but it is diminishing the ability to wait, and our ability to wait (or not) shows just how much self-control we have. Having self-control is an essential and powerful psychological resource. 

Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a study in the 1960s and it involved the marshmallow test, which helped measure childhood self-control. He gave 4-year old children one marshmallow and told them if they waited and did not eat it they would get two. This study followed the children many years after this test was done and the results showed that those who waited and did not eat the first marshmallow grew to be adults who demonstrated a stronger sense of self-control. They also were described by their parents as being able to cope with their frustration and resist temptation more than their peers. 

Overvaluing instant gratification can result in us being distracted from more long-term meaningful and fulfilling goals. Too often we seek something that is quick and easy, and this can cause us to not appreciate whatever that something is as much as we would if we had to wait for it. Instant gratification increases the psychological need to experience a fast and short-term pleasure. The dopamine being released after getting notifications or satisfaction from social media makes you feel good. Due to how fast-paced social media is, your brain becomes trained to release more dopamine at faster rates from social media. This typically leads to you refreshing your social media more and more looking for that dose of dopamine and satisfaction that comes with it. However, if you fail to get that gratification it can have poor effects on your mental health, even increasing one’s anxiety. 

 Technology and social media have caused us to become a society that expects and is accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. With 24/7 access to instant gratification through our smartphones, we are less likely to choose the option for delayed gratification. Many don’t see the point in waiting with access to instant streaming, the ability to refresh social media with a simple swipe, same-day shipping, and more. There are many benefits to being constantly connected to the world, but there are also many negative effects as well. We are easily and always connected to so many people through social media, but even with all this connection, our communication skills are beginning to diminish. Unfortunately, instant gratification is causing a decrease in our attention span as well and too many people are experiencing a lack of deep thinking and a loss of patience because of it. Some studies have shown that the human attention span has dropped to eight seconds, which is lower than that of a goldfish. 

Instant gratification isn’t just having an impact on our attention span but also becoming detrimental to how we view ourselves and our abilities. The ability to get a hit of dopamine by uploading a selfie and getting likes and comments on it makes it so easy for one to get gratification quickly. But what happens when we don’t get the number of likes we thought we would?

 Seeking the constant instant gratification from social media can cause dependence and cause reprogramming of the reward system, which can lead to potentially permanent brain changes. Our reward system organizes life-sustaining behaviors and the tools needed to take desired actions. When we complete these actions we are rewarded with pleasure. This system is activated when we receive likes and this causes us to be stimulated, which encodes our brain to remember what made us feel that way so we can repeat that behavior to experience that same reward in the future. When you encounter these “cues” that have been encoded, you remember the initial encounter, and the craving to repeat it increases. Each time the experience is repeated the executive center of the brain that provides activation to have that experience again becomes more deeply ingrained. This enables the circuits to become stronger and more compelling, creating a dependence.

While this should not be interpreted to mean that we can’t appreciate the conveniences of the modern world, it is vital that we are more cognizant about the context, recurrence, and outcomes of this kind of dynamic. Taking time away from social media can be helpful and allows us to gain perspective, have a critical reflection, and gives us time to remember that there is more to life than what we see online.


by Abriel Cleaver

Abriel is a multifaceted creator. She is also a cancer survivor, writer, and mental health and social justice advocate. In her spare time, she enjoys connecting with family and friends, creating art, reading a good book, and creating new playlists.