Delayed gratification and the Indian lunch menu

A very interesting research study once came out of Stanford University, led by Prof Walter Mischel. It was called the Marshmallow test. They put four-year-old kids in a small room, put a small toffee in front of them and gave them two choices. If the child could wait for 10 mins, he/she will get two chocolates. If, however, the kid decided to just eat the candy right there and not eat it, that would be the end of the experiment... no more extra chocolates for the kids. Watch the video below of how some kids struggled against the inner urge and temptation :)

Later on, they kept track of what happened to each of these children... how did they do when they grew up? As it turns out, the children who were able to hold off that temptation successfully and got two chocolates as the reward did extremely well in life. The ones who were the quickest to jump the gun were also the ones who ended up in gangs, became small-time crooks, etc.

This concept of "holding off" or working hard in an effort to win a bigger reward is called "delayed gratification": you skip the immediate opportunity of getting something and instead wait for the bigger prize. People who are successful in cultivating this habit also do not default on their loan payments, they don't overspend (generally), can work hard before their exams and not get out to see that India-Pakistan cricket match.

Well, all that sounds good. What does it have to do with the Indian lunch menu, again? Think about it: we do delay the prize ourselves! You start off with the bitter part: karela. Then the plain old bland dishes come in: the ones you eat every day. This counts as dal, some rice, some sabzi (vegetables). But then you move on to the more "interesting" dishes. Your chicken curry, your spicy fish... you get the idea. And then, of course, comes everyone's favourite part: the dessert. Let me not name too many desserts here: you might just feel like having one :)

Even the cultural pressure is there on almost everyone to follow the courses in order. If you "jump the gun", the first time might be passed over as a childish aberration, but then people really look down upon you as uncivilized, etc.

So does this mean, if you try the candy experiment on your own kid and he picks up the chocolate within 10 seconds he is doomed to fail in life? No sir, he isn't. Look at the 3rd paragraph above where I slipped in the phrase "successful in cultivating this habit". Yes, this is a habit, and it can be successfully cultivated. The children from the experiment who grabbed the chocolate early were taught not to do that, and the next time they were able to successfully hold off the temptation. As it turned out, they too were able to succeed in life. Delayed gratification can indeed be practiced, reinforced and made into a habit.

So what does this mean for your lunch menu? Just hold on a little longer, braveheart! The dessert is yet to come :)


  1. I call this kind of experiment as "profound inanity". I doubt whether the results of this experiment can really be trusted all that much.

    Holding off for a candy for ten minutes and then succeeding in life... where's the connection except in the fevered imagination of the "scientists" who conducted it. Ha!

  2. Hari, they did trace the results... so although correlation is not causation, it does raise some interesting questions. After all, morning shows the day! :)

  3. Hi,

    I'm a strong advocate of "indefinitely delayed gratification" - delaying gratification forever, so that you never get the desired object.

    E.g. people often find that planning for a trip and imagining the fun they would have once they were at the beach or the mountains give them immense pleasure. Hence, it makes more sense for people to convince themselves to "delay the vacation till next year, so that I can have more time and money to enjoy myself" - and keep doing that indefinitely!

    That way, you don't spend a penny, can carry on with regular day-to-day tasks and still "enjoy" yourself. Also, after a couple of years, the temptation to go on vacation wears off, probably the mind realizes that you're NEVER going on vacation. Hence money and time both saved.

    This same thing can be applied for, say, salaries. If I'm going to "save up" forever for a Lamborghini, and never going to buy it, then how does it matter whether I ever get more than Rs. 10k as salary? I'm cheering myself up just by looking at numbers increase in a bank account!

    What do you think?


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