In 1970, Walter Mischel conducted a now classic experiment. He left four-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If the child rang the bell, he would come back and let her eat the marshmallow. But if she resisted ringing the bell, and waited for him to return on his own, the child would be given two marshmallows. The choice was between instant gratification and delayed-but-increased gratification.
Mischel videotaped the kids desperately trying to exercise self-control. Some broke down and rang the bell in less than a minute. Others lasted up to 15 minutes. Mischel continued to track the children through their teen years and into adulthood. He concluded that the children who exhibited the least self-control at four were more likely to become bullies, receive poor grades in school, and have substance abuse problems by age 32. The preschoolers who waited, on the other hand, tended to outperform their peers in school, went on to college, and became healthier adults.
I have considered conducting this same experiment with my own children, but I'm afraid of what the outcome might reveal about them ... and me. Mischel wrote in his report, "It pays to work toward the future instead of living for instant gratification." That is the basic goal of parenting. We try to nurture an infant, which has no ability to delay his desires, into a mature adult who can control his desires in order to maximize future pleasure and minimize future pain.
Mischel's marshmallow test reveals the missing factor in our contemporary conversations about sex. Ours is not the first sex-saturated culture to inhabit the earth, but we are the first to also have an economic system predicated on instant gratification. Consider that a century ago, when America's rural citizens and European immigrants flooded into cities, sexual immorality was rampant. In 1910 Chicago had over 1,000 legal brothels. What kept this vice from consuming the population, however, was the virtue of self-control extolled by both the church and wider culture. Many of those who were part of the "Greatest Generation" valued self-denial, delayed gratification, and hard work. These values had real benefits when also applied to the populations' spiritual and sexual lives.
This all changed in the second half of the twentieth century as the United States became a consumer economy. Today, prosperity depends more upon the rapid, repeated consumption of disposable goods and experiences, and less upon the slow, hard work of manufacturing. The rise of advertising during this period also taught us how to desire what we did not need, and the importance of satisfying our desires without delay. As Pepsi's latest campaign says, we should "Live for now."
Research among Millennials is revealing the impact of being shaped by an instant gratification culture. It shows Millennials have an unrealistic expectation of success early in life without first investing years of hard work. In other words, they not only want two marshmallows, they expect to receive them without waiting at all. Millennials feel entitled to what earlier generations expected to earn.
Access to sex and pornography combined with the value of instant gratification has created a perfect smut storm that is causing chaos for churches, kids, marriages, and communities. Unfortunately, many Christian attempts to combat this wave may be doing more harm than good. Rather than cultivating the spiritual fruit of self-control, some churches are doubling down on the culture's value of instant gratification with 30 Day Sex Challenge campaigns or by touting research saying churchgoers have better sex. Adding to the problem is the use of marketing and outreach strategies by churches that also appeal to self-interest and abandon the gospel call to self-denial.