Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

Delayed Gratification: A Battle That Must Be Won

Anything worth having is worth waiting for.
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Know When to Walk Away by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

Consistently choosing immediate reward over delayed gratification is one of compulsive overeaters’ fundamental challenges. Many people have delayed gratification issues.  However, for compulsive overeaters it is potentially lethal and among the primary reasons, we become overweight and remain overweight.

Technically, choosing between the smaller immediate reward and the larger pay-off later is an intertemporal choice, meaning choices that differ in the timing of their consequences. Many believe that impulsivity, or the inability to choose the larger delayed gratification of weight reduction, over the immediate reward of eating a candy bar, is a matter of “poor self-control.” It is not that simplistic. Biology wires our brains by observing our early-life experiences to determine how our world should be so that our brains are prepared to respond to life accordingly. 

This applies to how various neural systems inform intertemporal choices, which is an issue of individual brain wiring responding to a specific situation at a specific point in time. In addition, every one has chosen immediate gratification over delayed gratification, and vice versa, at some point in his or her life. Therefore, intertemporal choice is an episodic event, not a litmus test for determining character. This is important because we become what we think we are. Stigmatizing ourselves because of our neuro-disposition is not useful and counterproductive to achieving our goal.

It is like a person believing they are incapable of mowing their lawn because he or she does not understand how to use their lawnmower. They will never mow the lawn as long as they think they cannot do it.  However, if the person realizes that they just need to learn how to use their lawn mower, eventually they learn, and mow the lawn. The same is true for compulsive overeaters and intertemporal choice preferences.  Our lawnmowers work, we just need to learn how to use them. Therefore, we must focus on understanding how intertemporal choice works in our brains, rather than judging ourselves for how it works.  


Intertemporal choice is a reward-based concern.  Our primary purpose for seeking rewards is pleasure. Pleasure motivates humans, which serves evolution’s purpoose.  The evolutionary purpose of reward is to ensure our wellbeing by controlling vegetative function and organizing goal-directed behavior, such as choosing delayed gratification for the greater good.  Controlling behavior, like intertemporal choice, requires extracting reward-related information from a wide range of internal and external sources.  To accomplish this, the brain must detect rewards, determine availability and accessibility, learn to predict future rewards based on past experience, establish reward value, use reward information to learn, choose, prepare and execute goal-directed behaviors. 

Hence, the brain’s reward circuitry is like the Los Angeles freeway system, unbelievably complex, somewhat intimidating, but serving a difficult purpose.  Regrettably, “difficult purpose” is the operative phrase because the system is multifariously complicated, involving many brain structures, systems, neuro-chemicals, and other factors. Thus, there are many opportunities for signal breaches, and compromised pathways to mitigate desired outcomes. This potential for compromise increases exponentially when you consider compensatory wiring strategies by the brains of individuals who have experienced early life trauma, or have metabolic or endocrine concerns, which would be most compulsive overeaters. 

Take for example, the medial orbital frontal cortex (mOFC), which is the primary brain structure associated with intertemporal choice. The mOFC establishes our preference for delayed gratification by calculating the value of immediate gratification versus delayed gratification, or by imagining the future reward of delayed gratification and its conceivable consequences.

Studies have also shown that anticipation of reward activates the mOFC. Dopamine, the neurochemical that makes reward pleasurable releases in the mOFC, although subcortical structures manufacture dopamine. Subcortical events, such as habit formation, affect dopamine production.  This raises the question: how does the encoding of stimulus-response habit formation in subcortical regions of the reward system influence the representation of reward value in the mOFC.
In turn, how does that representation influence intertemporal choice? The more familiar you are with the reward value of an event and its consequences, the more likely you are to choose it over less familiar rewards. If eating in response to specific stressors has become a stimulus-response behavior encoded in your ventral striatum, (See Compulsive Overeating and Habit Formation) does the mOFC really have the option of choosing between immediate and delayed gratification?

More importantly, stress negatively affects brain function, especially the neural components of the reward system. Excessive or prolonged exposure to stress results in allostatic load. Allostatic load is when our body’s protective mechanisms, designed to keep us healthy, begin making us sick from chronic over usage. Eating is the body’s fundamental self-protective mechanism. Compulsive overeating is the ultimate example of overusage of a protective mechanism making us sick. If you are a practicing compulsive overeater you are in allostatic load—trust me.

Allostatic load lies at the root of most physical and behavioral health problems, intertemporal choice included. This is because allostatic load distorts, disrupts, and eventually extinguishes human biology. Maybe the issue is not chronic impulsivity impeaching our ability to choose delayed gratification over immediate lesser rewards. Maybe the issue is how prolonged stress endurance reconstructed our perception of reward and reward value. In addition, primary rewards (such as food, drugs, alcohol, and sex), due to their dependence on interoceptive awareness (how we feel what we feel) and their power to provide instant satisfaction, are discounted at a higher rate than secondary rewards such as monetary gains. Maybe the immediate dopamine release that instant gratification provides is actually more valuable because of our allostatic status.

Metabolism is also a powerful determinant of intertemporal choice. Studies have shown that increasing blood glucose levels led to an increase in the value placed on future rewards; conversely, drinking a beverage without sugar led to an increase in the value placed on current rewards. The take-home message there: the lower end of spikes in blood sugar probably promote impulsivity. Artificial sweeteners, refined sugars, complex carbs etc., cause spikes in blood sugar. High-fat foods, internet pornography and white flour all disrupt reward pathway signaling as well. Many studies have shown this.

When I examined my intertemporal choice patterns, I discovered I am chronically impulsive and that I detest delayed gratification and naked light bulbs. The latter easily fixed, the former issues—not so much. 

However, here is what has worked for me: The less stress I endure the lesser the likelihood of making a sub optimal intertemporal choice. The more I say to myself, “I love and accept myself just as I am,” the easier change becomes. One of the ways the brain calculates the reward value of delayed gratification is by imagining the reward, and its consequences.


Again, I remind you, we become who we think we are. As a former television and film actor (don’t judge me), I know to make a performance believable you cannot pretend you are the character.  You have to become the character. Therefore, not later today, not tomorrow, or tonight, but right now, we become who we want to be. That should pretty much inform our intertemporal choices. Remain Fabulous and Phenomenal!

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is  Co-Investigator in the  Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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