instant gratification and dating

Instant gratification & dating: Are we hardwired to self-sabotage?

“Good things come to those who wait.”

“Patience is a virtue.” 

Cognitively, we understand that rushing certain things can be detrimental; proverbs like these reinforce these beliefs from a young age. 

Subconsciously, however, we receive very different messages along the way. Smartphones, social media, Google (and yes, even some dating apps!) condition us to expect to receive everything we want the second we want it. We’re constantly bombarded with marketing and messaging that tells us how we can “get rich quick!” or “lose weight now!”

In addition to this form of “nurture,” the idea of delayed gratification fights against our very biology. The desire for instant reward is a direct result of an evolutionary need to survive. For prehistoric humans, the availability of food and other necessities was uncertain, and the survival of the species depended on seizing immediate rewards when they were available. 

Basic behavioral economics gives us another angle to understand our desire for instant gratification. Generally speaking, humans are really bad at accurately perceiving potential future reward, future pleasure, and future preferences. For example, I might tell myself that today I’ll indulge in a few episodes of my favorite Netflix show because tomorrow I’ll have the willpower to sit down and finish my accounting homework. (Spoiler alert: I’ll still want to watch Netflix tomorrow.)

If you’re wondering how this shows up in your dating life, it might mean rushing into a relationship that doesn’t feel right; expecting immediate answers to texts or private messages; experiencing “shiny object syndrome” when scrolling through profiles, or making impulsive decisions that don’t align with what you truly want (perhaps based on instant physical attraction).

So how can you resist the urge for instant gratification and lean into more mindful dating? Here is a helpful primer and some tips to get you started.

Understanding the Factors

Optimism bias is a term in behavioral economics that describes our tendency to underestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen (such as loss of income due to a company shuttering or unexpected layoffs). The resulting overconfidence effect often leads us to overestimate our future success. Translation? We largely expect to be happier and more successful in the future than we will actually be, and we expect it to take less work than it actually will to achieve that level of success.

Combine this with present bias (the tendency to give stronger weight to rewards that are closer to the present time than to rewards promised sometime in the future), and you have a perfect storm.

This 2010 study reveals that our sense of time passing is altered by our mood. Time truly does fly when you’re having fun, as well as when you’re anxious about the future. Those who are impatient for an event in the future (like meeting the one)—that is, those in a state of craving—experience the passage of time slowly. We experience real psychological discomfort when we engage in self-denial, so it’s natural to desire ways to relieve this discomfort as quickly as possible. 

Understanding the Social Imprint

Magazines, movies, books, and social media present unattainable images of perfection in every aspect of life—with relationships often front and center. Instagram stories full of seemingly perfect couples and families make it easy to compare ourselves to other people’s timelines. Seeing four couples get engaged and two couples get married in one weekend (a real occurrence in my Facebook feed one holiday season) is bound to do a psychological number on us.

What people choose to present to the world on social media makes many relationships look effortless and storybook-worthy. Consciously or subconsciously, many of us want perfect relationships that take no effort—and we want them as soon as possible.

We want an ultimate meet-cute with a potential partner who checks all the boxes and a sparks-filled first date, followed by a rom-com-worthy courtship. It sounds impossible (rightfully so) when spelled out, but this is the story that our culture and the media sell to us.

In theory, we know that even these flawless social media couples experience ups and downs, but sometimes it’s hard to convince ourselves of that. When our dating life doesn’t live up to our expectations right away, we may be tempted to give up too soon.

Accepting Our Inner Wiring

We’re truly hard-wired for instant gratification, and understanding that can make all the difference. After all, discussions touting delayed gratification often take an oddly shameful tone for something that is perfectly natural and even necessary for survival. The issues begin to occur when we take it too far and lose the ability to choose long-term benefits over immediate, short-term rewards.

Simply being conscious of one’s tendency towards instant gratification and being able to recognize what areas of your life it might be affecting is a great first step.

Also, accept that it’s unrealistic to not have any expectations. (Even telling yourself “I have no expectations” creates expectations, namely, that you won’t be disappointed.) Consciously setting expectations is more beneficial than just letting your subconscious run wild.

For instance, if you go into a first date subconsciously hoping that it will be everything you ever dreamed of, you can pretty much guarantee that it will fall short. Setting realistic expectations, such as “I get to learn more about this person today, and I’m going to have a delicious lunch,” reframes the experience. This takes the pressure off—allowing you to relax, have more fun, and be yourself, leading to a potentially better date. 

Similarly, setting boundaries and expectations with partners or potential partners is important to make sure neither of you is waiting for something that might not happen anytime soon. Even outside of our desire for instant gratification, addressing expectations and working on clear communication is critical for successful relationships.

It’s okay to voice your own needs, desires, and expectations. Even the seemingly small things are worth bringing up—perhaps they simply haven’t even thought about the thing you’re expecting. Maybe you’re used to going on extravagant dinner dates with previous partners, and you’re worried that this person might not really like you very much because your dates have been more casual. (You might come to find out that, in reality, they just routinely go to bed at 8 p.m.!) 

While instant gratification developed out of evolutionary needs, you can often reap more benefits in our modern society by pushing back on those initial impulses. Employing delayed gratification can lead to a more rewarding dating life for you and your potential partners.