Marshmallows and condoms, how delayed gratification has a role to play in safer sex practices.
Imagine that you’re a 5-year old who is obsessed with the gooey sweetness of pink marshmallows. Imagine that a lady in a lab coat strikes a deal with you. She gives you a big fluffy marshmallow and tells you that you can eat it now or you can wait to eat it. She is about to leave the room for a while, and says that if you can wait until she gets back (without slamming the marshmallow into your face), then, she will give you ANOTHER delicious spongy sweet. You only get the second sweet if you don’t eat the one she’s already given you while she’s away. This is delayed gratification. If you can’t fight the urge to eat the treat now, then you won’t score another. Now imagine that the decision you make could determine how the rest of your life is going to pan out. Deciding whether or not to eat that sweet now could demonstrate whether you will go on to be a successful adult, or not.
Stanford University conducted a study called the Marshmallow Experiment that began in the 60s. They offered hundreds of 4 and 5-year olds the marshmallow deal, and then, over a 40-year period, they did follow up studies and observed these kids grow into adults.
What the researchers discovered was mind-blowing. They learned that the kids that had been able to wait patiently for the reward of another sweet, all ended up having other traits in common too. They found that irrespective of race, culture, gender and socio-political and economic backgrounds, they were all generally very successful in numerous ways. They were more successful academically, they were healthier and less likely to be obese, they were more successful in business and generally earned better incomes in their careers. They enjoyed relationships and marriages that were more likely to last, suffered fewer substance abuse problems, and they all seemed to be happier and more well-balanced over the 40 years than the kids who didn’t wait and ate the marshmallow upfront.
It seems like such an insignificant determining factor, but the kids with this characteristic were able to put their wants, cravings and desires on the backburner for long enough to achieve their goals, and this is what made their life experiences so different to the kids who couldn’t be bothered to fight the urge to cram their faces.
It makes sense. If you can delay the urge to eat sweets and junk food until you can make something healthy to eat, you will be better off than someone who impatiently satisfies their hunger with a takeaway. Unwanted fat is the product of the daily mantra “I-couldn’t-be-bothered”. If you can delay the urge to spend your money on something that you may not really need, and rather spend it on an investment that will only pay dividends after many years, you’ll enjoy better financial wellness, and if you can sit down and study and work or do chores and fight the urge to rather veg in front of the TV as you paint your toenails metallic teal, you will achieve more in your life. It seems so obvious, but it’s where most of us fall short. Delayed gratification is at the root of all healthy lifestyle choices, yet we often struggle to convince ourselves that waiting will be worth it.
Sex is no different.
If you can be patient and only have sex with individuals that you have come to know and trust, your chances of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, is drastically reduced.
Using a condom during sex may be a compromise for you. It may not feel quite as good as condom-free sex, but delaying gratification here could make a huge difference in your life. If you wait until you and your partner have been tested for HIV and have discussed your sexual histories with one another before you go condom- free, it can make it a more significant and intimate experience for both of you. Patience may be a virtue, but it also has some serious benefits. Being impatient can ruin everything – anyone who has ever opened the oven door prematurely during a cake bake-off will be able to tell you so.
“Risky” sexual behavior is often synonymous with instant gratification. “I want to feel good now, so I’ll worry about the risks another time.” This is aggravated by alcohol and drug use because they can make delayed gratification significantly more difficult. Alcohol and drugs promote a “screw it let’s do it” attitude, which can make it harder to fight your urge to chow the first “marshmallow” that comes along.
It may not be your fault. Researchers at the University of Rochester discovered that kids that had been lied to or who had been led to believe that people were unreliable or untrustworthy, were less likely to wait for a second marshmallow, in further studies they conducted. Kids who were taught that adults could be trusted and would behave in a reliable way were more likely to be able to practice delayed gratification. The good news is that delayed gratification is not a predetermined trait. It’s a characteristic that individuals develop due to their environments and the people that influence their lives. It was also discovered that this trait can be learned, at any age. You can train yourself to be better at delayed gratification simply by making good on your promises. The promises you make to others as well as the ones you make to yourself.
It’s simple. You make a small promise and then you deliver. It’s all about teaching yourself that the challenge of discipline is more rewarding than the ease of gratification. Just because other people were dodgy and unreliable towards you doesn’t mean that you have to be the same. You can break the pattern and come through for yourself.
It’s simple, but it isn’t necessarily easy. Abstaining from sex with a ‘hottie’ when neither of you has a condom and you’re about to combust with lust, is no small task. Saying no to a triple-choc caramel and wafer jumbo muffin sprinkled with smarties when you’re starving is no small feat. It’s tough out there people! But those who are winning at life life will tell you that it is worth it. We just have to learn to believe them.
Maybe marshmallow-flavored condoms could be the next leg of the experiment? We’ll have to be patient and wait and see.
Bruce J. Little is a contributing writer for Anova Health Institute. These are his views, which may or may not reflect those of Anova Health Institute and affiliates.