Our Need For Instant Gratification May Be Genetic

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Our Need For Instant Gratification May Be Genetic

Date of Content:  December 28, 2023
Written by: Avanthika Nityanand
Reviewed by: Maarit Tiirikainen, PhD


What Is Instant Gratification? An Overview

Instant gratification is the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay or deferment. Essentially, it means wanting to get the satisfaction of a need immediately. 

In the modern world, we can prominently observe this concept in different facets, such as the immediate results offered by digital photography. Unlike traditional film photography, which requires processing time, modern-day digital photography provides instant feedback, allowing for the immediate gratification of seeing and sharing photos. Similarly, listening to music can be a form of instant gratification, as it provides immediate enjoyment or relaxation.

However, the pursuit of instant gratification can have unfavorable effects on an individual’s mental health and society. 

Psychologically, constantly seeking immediate satisfaction can rewire the brain, decreasing the ability to delay gratification, which is crucial for achieving long-term goals. This behavior could potentially contribute to feelings of dissatisfaction and even depression, as individuals may struggle to find fulfillment in activities that do not provide immediate rewards. On a societal level, the emphasis on instant gratification can lead to a culture of impatience, reduced attention spans, and decreased value placed on hard work and perseverance. 

To combat this, individuals can practice self-control techniques and mindfulness, setting long-term goals and recognizing the benefits of delayed gratification. By doing so, they can develop a more balanced approach to gratification, appreciating the immediate and long-term rewards of their actions.

Instant Gratification

Delay Discounting

Delay discounting (DD) is a psychological concept that refers to the tendency of individuals to prefer smaller immediate rewards over large delayed rewards. It measures how much a person devalues or discounts a reward based on the length of time they must wait to receive it. This concept is often used to understand decision-making processes, particularly in the context of self-control and impulse control.

For example, in a typical DD scenario, a person might choose between receiving $10 right now or $20 in a week. Some individuals might choose the immediate $10, demonstrating a higher delay discounting rate because they place less value on the larger, delayed reward. Others might opt for the $20 in a week, showing a lower rate of delay discounting as they are willing to wait for a more significant benefit.

While related, delay discounting and instant gratification differ in their psychological focus. DD is a cognitive evaluation process where individuals assess the value of a reward, typically devaluing it the longer they wait to receive it. It is often used to study decision-making and impulse control in various contexts.

Instant gratification, conversely, refers to the pursuit or desire for immediate pleasure or satisfaction. It is the impulsive action of seeking immediate rewards without considering long-term consequences. While DD is about how value perception changes over time, instant gratification is about the instantaneous fulfillment of desires.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

Without mentioning the famous delayed marshmallow experiment, one cannot discuss instant gratification/DD. The study helped underscore the importance of practicing delayed gratification in life.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, conducted by Walter Mischel and his colleagues in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is a seminal study in psychology, particularly concerning delayed gratification. In this experiment, children were offered a marshmallow and allowed to eat it immediately or wait for a short period to receive a second marshmallow. The ability to delay gratification predicted emotional stability and success later in life​.

Subsequent studies and commentaries have revisited and extended the findings of the original Marshmallow Test. For instance, one study explored whether a metacognitive therapy technique, Attention Training (ATT), could improve young children’s ability to delay gratification. The study found that the ATT intervention significantly increased the delay of gratification, suggesting that children’s self-regulatory ability can be enhanced, potentially reducing psychological vulnerability later in life​.

These studies highlight the complexity of self-regulation and delayed gratification in children. They suggest that while inherent traits play a role, external factors and interventions can significantly influence a child’s ability to delay gratification. Moreover, they reinforce the idea that early experiences and interventions can impact a child’s psychological and behavioral outcomes long-term.

Is Instant Gratification Genetic?


A 2011 longitudinal twin study investigated DD in adolescent subjects. Participants had to choose between a smaller immediate reward ($7) and a larger delayed reward ($10 to be received in 7 days). The results revealed significant heritability of DD at ages 12 and 14, with 30% and 51% heritability, respectively. The analysis also suggested that the same genetic factors influenced DD at both ages.

Moreover, the study found a significant association between DD and symptoms of conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance use, higher levels of novelty-seeking, and poor self-regulation.

This research is notable as it provides the first evidence of the heritability of DD in humans. It also indicates that DD could serve as a valuable endophenotype for genetic studies related to addiction and externalizing disorders, shedding light on the genetic underpinnings of these complex behaviors.

A 2015 study confirmed the above potential by showing that identifying specific polymorphisms associated with DD could shed light on the biological systems underlying these behaviors, potentially aiding in the development of pharmacological and neuromodulatory interventions. 

The Genetics

A 2017 genome-wide association study (GWAS) on DD involved 23,127 research participants of European ancestry. The most significant finding from this study was the association of the single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) rs6528024 of the GPM6B gene with DD. Furthermore, the study revealed that genotype accounted for approximately 12% of the variance in DD behavior. It suggests a notable genetic component in the tendency for delay discounting.

Additionally, the genetic signature of DD showed overlap with various psychological and physiological conditions, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, major depression, smoking habits, personality traits, cognitive functions, and body weight.

A 2019 GWAS study on 968 healthy female European subjects showed a nominally significant association between DD and the rs521674 in the ADRA2A gene. The study noted that larger sample sizes might be necessary to identify DD-related genetic associations. This research adds to the understanding of the genetic factors behind impulsivity and addiction but also highlights the challenges in uncovering these complex relationships.

DD In Gamblers

In a 2014 study, the researchers focused on frequent gamblers of European ancestry. The sample comprised 175 weekly gamblers who completed the Monetary Choice Questionnaire to assess their delay discounting preferences and provided saliva samples for DNA analysis. The study examined the associations between delay discounting and various dopamine-related genetic variants, including previously linked variants and a new panel of dopamine-related ones.

A significant association was found between the long form of the DRD4 VNTR and lower discounting of delayed rewards. Further exploratory analysis of the dopamine-related panel revealed 11 additional significant associations in genes related to dopamine synthesis, breakdown, reuptake, and receptor function (such as DRD3, SLC6A3, DDC, DBH, and SLC18A2). Based on the nominally significant loci, an aggregate genetic risk score accounted for 17% of the variance in discounting behavior. 

DD In Smokers

A 2015 study focused on 713 daily smokers (60.2% male) of European ancestry who underwent a delay discounting assessment and provided DNA samples. The results revealed significant associations between higher discounting of medium magnitude rewards and the G allele of rs4680 (COMT gene) and the T allele of rs1800497 (ANKK1 gene).

Section Summary

Several studies spanning from 2011 to 2019 have explored the genetic basis of DD, a behavioral trait indicative of impulsivity. These investigations have revealed significant heritability and genetic associations for DD, emphasizing its genetic underpinnings. The research has linked DD to various behavioral and psychological conditions, including addiction, and identified specific genetic variants associated with this trait. The findings from these studies suggest that DD could be a crucial factor in understanding and potentially addressing impulsive behavior and addiction, highlighting the need for further research in this area.

Non-Genetic Factors Affecting Instant Gratification/DD

A 2013 study investigated the influence of beliefs about environmental reliability on children’s decision-making in the marshmallow task. This study revealed that in an unreliable condition, fewer children waited the full 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow compared to a reliable condition, suggesting that external factors such as the perceived reliability of the environment play a role in children’s self-regulation​​.

Non-genetic factors that affect instant gratification and DD are diverse and often interrelated, encompassing environmental, psychological, and social aspects:

Environmental Factors

The immediate environment can significantly influence one’s propensity for instant gratification or delay discounting. For example, growing up in an environment where resources are scarce or unpredictable can lead individuals to favor immediate rewards, as future gains are perceived as uncertain.

Cultural Influences

Cultural norms and values play a role in shaping attitudes towards immediate versus delayed rewards. Some cultures may value future planning and saving more, while others may emphasize the importance of immediate enjoyment and consumption.

Educational Background

Education can impact one’s ability to delay gratification. Higher levels of education are often associated with better understanding and valuation of long-term goals over immediate pleasures.

Family Dynamics and Parenting Styles

How parents interact with and reward their children can significantly impact their ability to delay gratification. Authoritative parenting, which balances responsiveness with reasonable demands, tends to foster better self-regulation in children.

Psychological Factors

Individual psychological traits, such as self-control, willpower, and executive function, play a critical role in the ability to resist instant gratification. Mental health conditions like ADHD or depression can also influence impulsivity and decision-making processes.

Age and Developmental Stage

Traditionally, younger children are more inclined towards instant gratification due to their developmental stage. As people mature, they generally develop a greater capacity for self-regulation and foresight, enabling better delay of gratification. 

However, in a 2020 study, researchers demonstrated that delayed gratification in children has increased over the past 50 years. 

Peer Influence and Social Environment

Social circles and peer groups can significantly influence attitudes toward immediate rewards. Social pressure and the desire for social acceptance can lead to prioritizing immediate gratification.

Stress and Emotional State

High levels of stress or emotional distress can lead to a preference for instant gratification as a coping mechanism. People under stress may seek immediate comfort or escape, even if it is against their long-term interests.

Exposure to Technology and Media

The modern digital environment, characterized by instant access to information and entertainment, can foster a preference for immediate gratification. Constant exposure to fast-paced media and instant responses can diminish patience and the willingness to wait for delayed rewards.

Understanding these non-genetic factors is crucial for developing strategies to improve self-control and decision-making skills, particularly when delay discounting negatively impacts personal, social, or professional outcomes.

Recommendations To Improve Delay Discounting

Improving delay discounting, or the ability to favor long-term rewards over immediate but smaller gratifications, involves a combination of behavioral strategies, cognitive techniques, and lifestyle adjustments. Here are some recommendations:

  1. Set Clear Long-Term Goals: Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals can help focus on the long-term benefits and make delaying gratification more rewarding.
  2. Practice Self-Control and Mindfulness: Regular mindfulness and meditation can enhance self-awareness and control over impulsive decisions. Mindfulness helps in recognizing the urge for immediate gratification and choosing to wait for a better reward.
  3. Cognitive Behavioral Techniques: Techniques like cognitive restructuring can help change the thought patterns that lead to preferring immediate rewards. It can involve challenging and replacing impulsive thoughts with more rational, long-term thinking.
  4. Reward Substitution or Bundling: Combining a long-term goal with a short-term reward. For instance, allowing oneself a small reward while working on a larger project can make delaying gratification more bearable.
  5. Develop Strong Coping Strategies for Stress: Since stress can lead to impulsive decisions and immediate gratification, developing effective stress management techniques can be beneficial. It can include exercise, hobbies, or talking to a friend or therapist.
  6. Incremental Training: Gradually increasing the delay period for gratification can help build tolerance. Start with tiny delays and progressively increase the waiting period for rewards.
  7. Environment Modification: Change the environment to reduce temptations. For example, avoid browsing online shopping sites if you are trying to save money.
  8. Educational Programs: Educational interventions focusing on the benefits of delayed gratification and how to achieve it can be helpful, especially for children and adolescents.
  9. Social Support and Modeling: Surrounding oneself with people who exhibit and support delayed gratification can encourage similar behavior. Role models who exemplify patience and long-term planning can be particularly influential.
  10. Reflect on Past Successes: Reflecting on instances where delaying gratification led to positive outcomes can reinforce the behavior. Keeping a journal of these successes can serve as a motivational tool.
  11. Use Visual Reminders: Visual cues that remind of long-term goals can help keep focus on the bigger picture and resist short-term temptations.
  12. Professional Help: If difficulty in delay discounting significantly impacts life, seeking help from a psychologist or counselor can provide personalized strategies and support.

LifeDNA Personality & Cognition Report

The LifeDNA Personality & Cognition Report analyzes Instant Gratification and 40 other traits. It offers intriguing insights into how genetics might influence your behavior, emotions, and social interactions. Based on genetic markers associated with personality traits such as introversion, extroversion, and emotional resilience, the report provides a detailed analysis to help you understand yourself better. Knowing your genetic predispositions can guide personal development, optimize relationships, and enhance career satisfaction.

We accept 23andMe, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), Living DNA, and MyHeritage DNA raw data. If you don’t have raw DNA data, start with a LifeDNA at-home genetic testing kit. Learn more here.


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