Problem of Immediate Gratification

Posted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on April 7, 2010 at 6:57pm | Excessive Appetites

The Problem of Immediate Gratification (the PIG) refers to the universal principle that immediacy is much more important than magnitude of a payoff when it comes to influencing overt behavior. This is especially true for animals, children and impulsive adults.

Impulsivity is defined as the tendency to choose a small reward now at the expense of a larger reward later (e.g., choosing $1 now over $10 tomorrow). Alternatively, impulsivity can mean avoiding a small punishment now in exchange for a big punishment later (e.g., avoiding dental treatment).

The relationship between immediacy of a payoff and the magnitude of its influence on behavior is hyperbolic. So when the incentive is nearby (in terms of time, space, or psychological distance) it can be awfully influential on real-time behavior.

Motivation is fluid and changes with local conditions. When the incentive is near, it has a greater influence on motivation than a commitment made some time ago. Experiential phenomena are state dependent. When you are close to the incentive, it will exert an influence on you in ways that you cannot now fully appreciate. Choices that may seem ridiculous now may seem like a good idea then.

Ultimately, the outcome of your efforts will be determined by how you perform during the high-risk situations that lie ahead. At these critical moments, you will be in conflict: Pulling in one direction is the motivation to follow the path of greatest advantage, and pulling in the other is the motivation to yield in the direction of least resistance and get the payoff of doing so.

Incentives that motivate both approach and avoidance evoke conflict within the individual. The PIG says, “Regardless of which payoff is biggest or most important, the one that comes first determines what you will do.”

Some outcomes such as physical health, professional success, or loving relationships may have large magnitude but are not produced immediately by a specific behavior. In contrast, the gratification produced by your incentive of choice is immediate, and for that reason exerts an influence on behavior that is disproportional to its magnitude or importance.

Impulsive individuals are particularly vulnerable to the PIG and some incentives are particularly corruptive. Even though they feel guilty about it, several women with whom I have worked have voluntarily given up their babies to use the drug. The PIG is worthy of your respect. Appreciating it intellectually is not the same as experiencing the change of motivation personally. Understand this: Your appraisals and response tendencies will be different when the incentive is nearby than it is now when the possibility of incentive use is not so immediate.

When you are far from the incentive, the motivation to avoid it is greater than the motivation to approach it. But when you are near the incentive, the PIG works its magic and the pull of the incentive can become very strong very quickly. Once the gradients cross and the motivation to approach is greater than the motivation to avoid, there is nothing to stop relapse—the loss of control can happen so fast that you won’t even notice it happening.

When the motivation to avoid the incentive is subtracted from the motivation to approach it, the resulting gradient of net motivation is also hyperbolic; the tendency to approach increases exponentially as the distance between you and the incentive decreases. Note that the motivation to lapse is relatively flat until it crosses the “X” axis. But as soon as it does, the increase in net attraction is so rapid that you may lapse before you know it—there may be no internal debate, no attempt to override the urge; you may simply have gone from intending not to lapse to intending to lapse before you knew what hit you.

When you are far from the incentive, the gradient of net attraction is below zero indicating motivation to avoid the incentive. Under such circumstances the prospect of long-term success appears certain. But when you are near the incentive—in terms of time, space, or psychological distance—net attraction will be greater than zero and you will be motivated to approach the incentive. As the distance between you and the incentive continues to shrink, its influence on state-dependent phenomena insidiously increases exponentially. It is important to be vigilant for the changes in subjective reality that can tip you off that you are getting too close to the incentive. It is important to be vigilant for these warning signals early and, once you do, urgently put distance between you and the incentive.

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Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.

Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.

2 Responses to “Problem of Immediate Gratification”

  • Hilda October 30, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Very helpful

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