What is Instant Gratification?
Courtney Ackerman. June 19, 2018
Is there something else you should be doing right now? Working on a project? Writing a paper? Putting away that load of laundry that’s been in the dryer for two days? If so, you’re in good company. We all find ourselves distracted from meeting more long-term goals by more enjoyable short-term activities. Each of us likely struggles with these urges to procrastinate every day—with varying degrees of success. Why is it so hard to stay the course on our long-term projects, even when we are certain that the advantages of sticking to it will far outweigh the more immediate benefits of putting them off? The answer is instant gratification.
What is the Meaning of Instant or Immediate Gratification?
Instant (or immediate) gratification is a term that refers to the temptation, and resulting tendency, to forego a future benefit in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit. When you have a desire for something pleasurable—be it food, entertainment, or sex—you rarely think thoughts like, “My stomach is rumbling and I would love to have that delicious dish, but I’d rather wait another hour.” It’s a natural human urge to want good things and to want them NOW. It has almost certainly provided an evolutionary advantage for humans and their ancestors, as life for pre-modern humans hinged on decisions made and actions taken in the immediate far more than those intended for long-term gain. It’s all well and good to plan for the future, but actions that are taken to benefit you in the here and now are much more advantageous when you’re being stalked by a fierce predator or offered the opportunity to eat your fill in a time when starvation was a much bigger concern than obesity. The flip side of instant gratification is delayed gratification, or the decision to put off satisfying your desire in order to gain an even better reward or benefit in the future. It’s easy to see how delayed gratification is generally the wiser behavior, but we still struggle on a daily basis with the temptation to give in to our immediate desires. Why is it so difficult to choose delayed over instant gratification.
Instant Gratification Theory in Psychology
At the heart of instant gratification is one of the most basic drives inherent in humans—the tendency to see pleasure and avoid pain. This tendency is known as the pleasure principle. The term was first used by Sigmund Freud to describe the role of the “id,” his proposed component of the unconscious mind that is driven purely by baser instincts (Good Therapy, 2015). Although Freud’s conceptualization of the human mind has largely been relegated to the “interesting idea, but it doesn’t really pan out” category of psychological theories, the pleasure principle was one of his more enduring propositions. It’s clear that humans are, to at least some extent, driven by the desire to experience pleasure. You could even argue that self-defeating behavior that seems to bring no immediate benefits is in line with the pleasure principle—for example, a person who frequently starts fights with his spouse may seem to be getting no benefit from his actions, but perhaps the apology or make-up period after the fight has passed outweighs the short-term discomfort of the argument (Good Therapy, 2015). However you slice it, the lure of short-term pleasure is a tough temptation to avoid.