Patience Is a Virtue
This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers and was originally created to support the John Templeton Foundation and Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.
It can be hard to remember that patience is a virtue in today’s fast-moving, always-on culture. Every day, we are bombarded with advertising, online apps, and other media that promise to deliver on a product or service at increasing rates, instilling in us a greater desire for instant gratification of our wants and needs. But is that always a good thing? After all, we’ve all seen the harmful consequences of impatience: a driver runs a red light and gets into an accident; holiday shoppers shove each other on Black Friday and fight over discounted electronics and toys; students drop out of college because getting a degree feels like it’s taking too long.
It’s easy to lose sight of the many benefits of having patience, because sometimes the frustration is all too much. However, research has revealed time and time again that the short-term discomfort we might experience while we work toward our desired outcome is well worth the wait.
The Marshmallow Study
One of the best (and cutest!) studies on patience was conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University in 1972, famously known as the "marshmallow experiment." Children between the ages of 3 and 5 were asked to sit a table, and a marshmallow was placed in front of them. The researchers explained to the children that they had two options: either eat the marshmallow in front of them immediately (small reward), or wait 15 minutes and eat two marshmallows instead of one (large reward). The children were tracked by the researchers well into adulthood, and the study revealed that those who were able to exercise patience and wait for their larger reward were more successful later in life. They were also found to be better able to cope with stress and frustration as adolescents, suggesting that developing patience as children can lead to better coping skills later in life. Additional research by Dr. Sarah Schnitker, a psychologist from Baylor University, revealed that increased patience leads to higher achievements, which leads to greater well-being.
Research Findings on Delayed vs. Immediate Gratification
What differentiates those who can delay gratification from those who can’t? The answer may lie in our brains. Researchers conducted brain scans of the marshmallow experiment participants after a period of 40 years had passed, when the children were well into adulthood. They found that the group that could delay gratification had greater activity in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for thinking and planning, especially when it comes to actions that are relevant to our goals. It acts as the “control center” of the brain, and is ultimately responsible for what actions we take. This finding suggests that the prefrontal cortex played a large part in helping people prioritize controlling their impulses in order to obtain a desired reward. Conversely, those participants who had trouble delaying gratification showed more activity in the ventral striatum area, which is part of the reward system of the brain. This finding suggests that those who could not delay gratification were drawn to the possibility of immediate rewards, which had an overriding effect on the rational, thinking parts of the brain.
The marshmallow experiment might lead you believe that patience is a trait that is hardwired into our brains, but Dr. Schnitker’s research suggests that patience is a trait that can be developed. One way to increase patience is by tying a delay of gratification to a larger goal. By thinking about goals, we activate the prefrontal cortex and are therefore more likely to control our impulses. For example, we can teach children and adolescents that waiting to play video games until they’ve finished studying is tied to the goal of doing well in school, which in turn gives them greater choices in terms of occupation when they become adults. According to Dr. Schnitker, spirituality and religion can also help with the development of patience, perhaps because so many spiritual and religious practices emphasize keeping calm in the face of adversity. Religion and spirituality can also provide answers to the question of why humans suffer, which can give us the ability to bear hardships in life.
"Religion and spirituality can also provide answers to the question of why humans suffer, which can give us the ability to bear hardships in life."
Therefore, apps or media that have clearly stated goals and can link children and adolescents’ actions to those goals can help children develop patience. Similarly, creating media that emphasizes the spiritual, rather than the mundane, aspects of human existence can also help children and adolescents look toward something higher instead of becoming frustrated by the small annoyances in life.
Other methods of developing patience are demonstrated by the techniques that the researchers used in carrying out the marshmallow study. Recall that the experimenters took the children into a room and placed a marshmallow in front of them, then left the room. The children who were successful in not eating the marshmallow exhibited a variety of behaviors in order to avoid temptation: They would "cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can't see the tray; others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.” In other words, the children distracted themselves in order to avoid temptation.
This suggests that techniques that promote distraction — of not always focusing on what’s in front of us — can help develop patience.
It’s also important to have multiple goals or objectives in life, so that we do not grow frustrated if we are not making progress in one area.
Suggestions for developing patience in children and adolescents using media:
Develop apps or games with multiple objectives and ways to succeed
Develop apps or games that require a level of patience in order to advance to the next level
Create media that emphasizes the spiritual aspects of life
Show examples of people who have overcome suffering through perseverance, like Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela
Create media that ties short-term objectives to long-term goals.
Author Wenwen Ni is a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at UCLA. She is passionate about using psychological research to improve well-being.