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The Effects of Instant Gratification

By Michelle Guan


Image retrieved via Vizaca.


Instant gratification is a term that refers to the temptation to experience satisfaction & fulfillment immediately. This concept often appears in our daily lives, specifically because of the digital age that we are living in; since the world is literally at our fingertips, we are accustomed to give in to our urges that we believe will provide us with the most pleasure.


Psychology behind instant gratification


One of the most basic motivations that is inherent in all humans is the tendency to be attracted to pleasure while avoiding pain, which is known as the pleasure principle. This term was initially coined by Sigmund Freud to describe the role of the “id” (the primitive part of the mind that seeks pleasure and is driven instinctually). If there is no fulfillment, our psychological response is anxiety because the id has not been satisfied.


Image retrieved via Simply Psychology.


In 2004, researchers from Princeton University discovered that one area of the brain was associated with emotions while the other area was associated with abstract & logical reasoning. According to the research, these two regions tend to “compete” with each other when the brain has to make a decision; if the emotional region “wins”, then instant gratification is successfully accomplished.


Ultimately, an innate desire to have what we want whenever we want is present since our brains are wired to prioritize short-term desires over long-term goals. The brain’s response to short-term desires is a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure. When a response to a stimulus (e.g: eating sweets) results in a reward, the association between that stimulus and the reward strengthens; this is also known as long-term potentiation. Thus, frequently used connections between neurons become stronger, resulting in an increased intensity of the response to the stimuli. After multiple repetitions, the behavior becomes automatic.


Image retrieved via Self Hacked.


Additionally, delayed gratification (the opposite of instant gratification) is challenging for many people because our uncertainty about future rewards compels us to “seize” the reward ahead of time instead of waiting. Although striving for the immediate reward is usually perceived as a loss of self-control, oftentimes, it is a result of one’s rationale that a promised reward is uncertain or unlikely.


Expectations in our lives that stem from instant gratification


Instant gratification can significantly affect our expectations within our lives. For instance, due to technology, the world’s need for instant online connections is growing. Social media provides immediate response and satisfaction for users by incorporating likes, shares, and comments. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, humanity has an intrinsic motivation to find and achieve certain needs from their environment; some of these needs are “the development of friendships, intimacy, and self-esteem.” Because people naturally seek others’ approval to build connections with them, people can become more dependent on social media in order to receive that satisfaction more quickly.


Image retrieved via Simply Psychology.


As Amazon, Verizon, and other online providers become more advanced and more people start using these premium services, they become more impatient because they are ‘conditioned’ to anticipate quicker responses in their lives. A study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that viewers usually abandon online media if they take more than two seconds to load. This data implies that many people are not willing to wait because of the typical fast accessibility that technology provides. In a way, the need for instant convenience is robbing them of time for reflection and critical thinking. An English professor at Bucknell University remarked that, “waiting gives people time for thinking, inspiration, and regeneration.” The investment of time (the most precious thing in life) is what adds value to objects and experiences, so when people are accustomed to not having to spend time on these objects and experiences, they become less tolerant of waiting for them to appear if there’s a delay.


Influence on the marketing world and fast fashion industry


Because of the ability to constantly secure basic goods and services, the only thing that consumers can enjoy is the consumption of the experience and new. Thus, they obsess over the present and focus on how to get a certain product or service right at that moment. Business models have adapted over time to meet this expectation by prioritizing customer satisfaction and efficiency, which is encouraging consumers to demand more and more. It is essential for marketing strategists to take advantage of these opportunities because these short-term opportunities may not be available the next day; that’s how quickly consumers can move from one business to another.


Image retrieved via Statista.


Marketing teams used to go through the process of examining their target consumer group as a whole (what the people need, when the people need the product, and how the product can be delivered), but now, marketing teams can simply advertise to each individual within the target consumer group by using their data, such as geolocation, and details that can grab the consumer’s attention, such as images and videos. Furthermore, these websites purposely create many time-sensitive details (e.g: “Buy this laptop for 45% off! Deal ends tonight at 11:59 pm.) and prize draws to gain user engagement and commitment in order to encourage continued use.


Image retrieved via Elsevier.


Advancements in personalization technology allows online service providers to give specific recommendations based on users’ preferences and browsing history. Although privacy and security concerns are arising, online users are not always careful about the websites that they’re using since they often make quick judgements that are based on heuristics, mental shortcuts, that can be triggered by cues on websites. These cues can be presented as buttons for receiving a discount or logos for immediate prizes upon registration at the site; because of these cues, participants usually trust the websites more, resulting in a higher tendency to disclose personal information.


Marketing strategies focus on encouraging hedonism, the pursuit of self-indulgence, within consumers, which is profitable for businesses, but isn’t a sustainable experience. The pleasures that come from hedonism are brief and uncertain because consumers anticipate the pleasure that a new product may bring to them, yet the product never lives up to their expectations. This tragic cycle of hope and disappointment continues, and businesses are the only ones who benefit from these transactions. Consumerism is embraced, but not in the sense of acting in the consumer’s best interest, but in encouraging the consumption culture and promoting a materialistic orientation.


The fast fashion industry has significantly thrived upon this concept because consumers often focus on quantity over quality; instead of buying a few good quality clothing pieces that can last years, most people opt for a variety of mediocre quality clothing products. The saying “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” suggests a continuous cycle of desirable products that must be bought at that instant or else it may be obsolete the next instant, taking advantage of consumers’ aspirations to participate in current trends. New styles are continuously replacing the old, which meets consumer demands in terms of low cost, novel designs, and efficient response times.


Why do some people choose instant gratification?


In hindsight, it’s easy to look down on those who succumb to instant gratification and immediately classify them as unwise individuals who lack self-control. However, that’s not always the case since economic status may play a role in some people’s decisions. People in poor countries usually save less for retirement and focus on their health less often than those in developed countries. Why? Because people in poverty have limited resources, leading to more exposure to threats. As a result, they tend to focus on the present rather than the future because they are more concerned about immediate needs, such as food, utilities, and housing. Furthermore, the instability and unpredictability of poverty can cause them to distrust the fact that a reward is waiting for them in the future, so they will most likely take what they can get as soon as they spot anything that is useful to their survival.


A group of researchers conducted a study to observe “how poverty and affluence cues affected individuals’ intertemporal choices”. In one experiment, they tested the prediction that participants who were primed with affluence images would most likely choose delayed rewards while participants who were primed with poverty images would most likely choose immediate rewards. The images that the participants looked at are below:


Images retrieved via PLOS One.


The result of the multiple experiments proved that the researchers’ hypothesis was correct. The fact that the participants were primed led the researchers to the conclusion that the mere feeling of poverty can significantly influence choices pertaining to the future.


Individuals who expect to live longer are able to take the risk of waiting for more valuable results because they believe that they have more time in the future and can afford to wait for a delayed, but larger, reward. However, those who don’t expect to live longer may believe that there will be no opportunity to receive that delayed reward, so they will choose the immediate, but smaller, reward. Ultimately, people who choose instant gratification may be in dire circumstances, so it isn’t fair to stereotype these individuals as lazy, unmotivated people.


However, it is rash to assume that affluent individuals don’t feel tempted to instantly gratify themselves, when in fact, it may be the opposite. The culture of fast food and services encourages online users to demand that their needs be met instantaneously. Due to this, impulsive consumer buying behavior is extremely common as it makes up nearly 80% of all purchases in particular categories. Instead of meticulously considering all choices and making a purchase based on the information that is provided, most people give in to their compulsions and buy anything that they desire. The term impulsive buying is defined by two characteristics: 1) quick decision making and 2) a desire to possess an item immediately. Additionally, consumers who participate in impulsive buying usually don’t pay much attention to potential negative consequences. Some studies show that social culture can be a factor in impulsive buying behavior. Generally speaking, those who are more collectivist are driven by social norms within their in-group and have the ability to repress personal needs in certain situations while those who are individualist prioritize their personal goals and preferences, hence why individualistic people are more likely to engage in impulsive buying behavior. Impulsive buying behavior can be affected by social culture through one’s self-identity and need, or lack of need, to suppress personal beliefs in order to act appropriately.

Written by writer Michelle Guan


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