Spoil Alerts: The Battle of Immediate Versus Delayed Gratification

There are two types of people in this world: Those who can DVR a sporting event and resist the temptation to learn the results before watching it, and those who can’t.

One particular sporting event that really separates these two groups is the Olympics. Events unfold at all times during the day, results stream out into the media in the form of “Spoil Alerts” and, especially when they are in a place like Europe, the results of nearly the entire day are available as we wake up to our American sun. Some people can wait all day and happily watch the recorded events as if they were just occurring while others simply cannot, even when they have the best intentions of waiting. They check scores or results as if forced by some invisible power; kind of like how that poor bird always goes “coo coo for Coco Puffs” no matter how hard he tries not to.

This is called “instant gratification”. Instant gratification is usually thought of as an instance in which a person will accept an immediate, smaller reward as opposed to waiting to receive a larger reward. For example, if you look up the results of the men’s final in the 500m speedskate, you have the satisfaction of knowing who won, but you have lost the anticipation of the race and the excitement of watching it. P

eople who have problems with immediate gratification tend to become frustrated as, time and time again, they lose out on larger rewards in life. Most adults become better at delaying the impulse for an immediate reward as they mature. Children, on the other hand, will almost always take the smaller piece of cake now, in lieu of waiting for the larger piece. The child experiences the disappointment of missing out on the larger piece once he or she realizes what could have been. This contributes to learning and perhaps making a decision to delay gratification next time. Another aspect of maturity that helps in delayed gratification is “effortful control”. This is the ability to stop doing an enjoyable task (watching a Pixar movie) because a less enjoyable task (tubby time) is required. It is necessary for a child to have parents set these limits and support their child’s frustration with them. This is what helps develop the ability to prioritize, plan and sequence and delay gratification when necessary.

As simple as it sounds for an adult to engage in effortful control or delayed gratification, many struggle to do so. It is not totally understood why some find it so much harder to do this than others, but as the mysteries of the brain unfold, we get a much better idea. There is an area located toward the frontcenter of the brain called the “Nucleus Accumbens”. This is involved in our experience of reward and pleasure. There is additionally an area in the front of the brain, the “Orbitofrontal Cortex” that is involved in decision making and planning around reward and punishment. This is not a wellunderstood area, but dysfunction here is suspected, as is dysfunction with the Nucleus Accumbens, to be involved in Attention Deficit Disorder and other Impulse Control Disorders that tend to cause problems with immediate gratification.

Treatments for these problems vary, depending on the nature. In many, but not all cases, a medication that increases Dopamine (naturally synthesized in the body) seems to help.

Being the optimist that I am, I also believe that an adult, just like a child, can learn how to better control these impulses. It takes great dedication and practice, and sometimes maybe a boost of Dopamine, but it can be done. An excellent example of this is the alcoholic who learns how to block the impulse to drink, knowing that the rewards of staying sober down the road are infinitely greater than drinking now. The work to do that is, to put it lightly, hard. It is often a daily dedication to AA meetings, religiously following the 12 steps, journaling, going to therapy, possibly taking medications. You could call it an “Olympian Effort”.

As you watch these incredible Olympic athletes perform in their sports (whether live or on DVR), think of their devotion to be great and to succeed. Think of how hard they work to be in the shape they are in and to perform at the level they do. Remember that with hard work, desire and motivation, the brain, like the body, can respond to intense training.

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