Delayed Gratification: An Alternative Take on Shopping

Perhaps the biggest difference between shopping online and offline is how fast we receive the product. With online shopping, we have to wait a couple of days, sometimes a couple of weeks. Can we analyze the effects of this delay from a psychological perspective? Let’s have a look at the relationship between online shopping and delayed gratification.

What is Delayed Gratification?

Delayed gratification is a concept in psychology, which means rejecting short-term gratification for the sake of getting a bigger gratification in the long-term. Emerging in the 1970s with the notorious “marshmellow experiment”, the term “delayed gratification” also covers concepts such as being able to reject small pleasures to wait for a bigger pleasure as a reward, being able to show patience, concentrate and having control over one’s your will, etc.

In the marshmallow experiment conducted with kids, for instance, each child is given a marshmallow and told that they will be given two marshmallows if they can wait for a while without eating the single marshmallow. The experiment suggests that kids who manage to resist the temptation to eat the single marshmallow, perform better in the future both academically and professionally. It is consequently suggested that the kids who can’t resist the temptation to eat the single marshmallow despite knowing very well that they will be rewarded with two if then can resist, show a lower performance in their future academic and professional lives.

In fact, we adults face similar dilemmas in everyday life. Trying to eat less to lose wait in the long-term, saving money, investing for the future, finding a balance between socializing and work/school are all similar dilemmas. Can we then look at our relationship with online shopping from a similar perspective? What is the relationship between online shopping and delayed gratification?

Delayed Gratification and Online Shopping

If we want to analyze the relationship between online shopping and delayed gratification, we first need to focus on the differences between online and offline shopping. Although shopping in physical stores require more time and energy, it provides instant gratification since we get the product instantly. With online shopping, however, the shopping process is smoother and easier while the gratification is delayed until the product is shipped and received by the costumer. Can we then explain our increased pleasure from online shipping with this delayed gratification? Perhaps, we are more likely to shop online because the delayed nature of the transaction brings us more gratification?

Research shows that there might be a close correlation between online shopping and delayed gratification, suggesting that the more we wait for a reward, the bigger the gratification we get from it is. And, online shopping is no exception. When we shop online, we pay for the product, we track the status of the order, we track the shipment process, etc. All these steps and the act of waiting result in an increased gratification. In fact, the act of waiting for the product provides a certain level of gratification in itself.

The Difference Between Instant and Delayed Gratification

When it comes to online shopping, the concepts of instant gratification and impulse buying are often mentioned. However, since we don’t get the product (i.e., reward) instantly, instant gratification is not enough on its own to explain the psychology behind customer behavior with regards to online shopping. Moreover, the abundance of choice with online shopping is a considerable factor that deters most customers from shopping online.

All in all, delayed gratification can be a good explanation for the popularity of online shopping despite a number of discouraging factors such as the obligation to wait for the product, the abundance of choice and the difficulty of making a decision. We can suggest that the reason behind online shopping addiction may be delayed gratification rather than instant gratification. Knowing that the delayed nature of online shopping will bring more satisfaction in the long term, perhaps the customer makes the unconscious decision to choose online shopping over shopping in-store. Perhaps that’s also why we often prefer online shopping although we know very well that the product we are looking for is available in a shop in our neighborhood. 

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