My wife and I were eagerly consuming a hot fudge sundae on a blazingly hot July day, when suddenly, upon uncovering two maraschino cherries, I was transported back more than 40 years to my college days.
One rainy afternoon, my freshman year roommate, Tom—one of the most brilliant people I have ever known—disclosed a rather embarrassing habit. Tom loved maraschino cherries—loved in the sense of, “to die for.” Notwithstanding his craving for these artificially-sweetened, dubiously-dyed fruits, Tom could never bring himself actually to eat one.
Rather, in a display of industrial-strength delayed gratification, he would dutifully squirrel the cherries away in a corner of the refrigerator, planning to savor them in some dimly-conceived future. The result, sadly, was a refrigerator filled with several hundred moldering maraschinos—hence, the Maraschino Cherry Syndrome.
Now, psychologists tell us that, in general, delayed gratification is a good thing: a mark of maturity and self-restraint. It is the opposite of what I would call “delayed purification,” as when the young St. Augustine prayed, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” Some studies with young children have found that those who can delay gratification tend to do better in later life.
The now-famous “Marshmallow Experiment” by Walter Mischel and colleagues studied young children who were promised a second marshmallow if (and only if) they could refrain from eating the first.
The study found that children able to delay gratification ended up, years later, having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, and better social skills than their non-restrained counterparts. Follow-up studies over several decades seemed to confirm the self-restraint/success correlation.
But there’s a new twist: a recent study has cast considerable doubt on the conclusions of the original “Marshmallow Experiment.” In a 2018 study titled, “Revisiting the Marshmallow Test,” investigators Tyler W. Watts, Greg J. Duncan and Haonan Quan carried out a modified replication of Mischel’s experiment, using a much larger sample size and controlling for key demographic variables.
The latter included whether the child’s mother did or did not receive a bachelor’s degree, and the income of the child’s household. Watts and colleagues then looked at the association between early delayed gratification and long-term academic achievement and behavioral functioning.
In essence, the Watts study found very limited support for the results of the original “Marshmallow Experiment,” once factors like the children’s cognitive capacities, household income, and maternal education were taken into account.
(Indeed, Dr. Watts has written to me that, “…We found almost no association between gratification delay and later behavioral measures, even before taking the control variables into account.”)
The study found that early delay of gratification did correlate with later achievement, among the children whose mothers had not completed college–but most of the correlation was gained by delaying gratification a mere 20 seconds! Given this minuscule interval, Watts et al suggest that the “marshmallow test” is more closely linked to a child’s basic cognitive abilities than to self-control.
As for the kids whose mothers had completed college, there was no significant association between delay-of-gratification and the behavioral measures at grade one and age 15.
But aside from these conflicting studies, the question remains: how important is delayed gratification in the overall scheme of our lives? How much does the ability to delay gratification contribute to—or detract from—what the Stoic philosophers called eudaimonia; very roughly translated, a flourishing life?
To be sure, there’s a lot to be said for self-discipline. But as my roommate’s habit demonstrates, self-denial and delayed gratification can be carried too far. Zachary Slayback of the Foundation for Economic Education has argued that the further we move along the delayed gratification timeline, the more we “chip away at [our] ability to try new things.”
For Slayback, delayed gratification that doesn’t foster our most cherished goals and interests “…is not wise, virtuous, or somehow showing merit — it’s self-destructive…”
The rabbis of the Talmud debated the question of delayed gratification, though they did not use that term. One school of rabbinic thought admonished us to refrain from physical pleasures, arguing that eating should have the sole aim of sustaining ourselves, in order to serve God.
On the other hand—and with the rabbis, there was always another hand—the Talmud itself counsels, “Whoever denies himself pleasures is called a sinner”; and, “In the world-to-come, a person will have to give account for everything his eye saw yet he did not eat.” Presumably, this would include marshmallows and maraschino cherries.
Perhaps there is a rational “middle ground.” A complete inability to delay gratification would lead to a life of gluttony, obesity, and general chaos. But an unthinking obsession with delayed gratification would amount to a life of self-abnegation, deprivation, and depression—not to mention, a refrigerator full of moldy cherries. Here, as in so many things, the counsels of moderation are well worth heeding.