Uncovering the Longitudinal and Physiological Associations between Self-Control, Delay of Gratification and Future Thinking
High self-control, better delay of gratification, and future thinking have long been linked theoretically and, more recently, empirically, yet evidence of the causal relationships between them is non-existent. The present research aimed firstly to elucidate the nature of the relationships between self-control, delay of gratification and future thinking, and secondly to investigate whether they are rooted in our physiology. In Study 1, a sample of 174 undergraduates completed a self-report survey three times with 2-month intervals in between. Longitudinal mediation path models were constructed to determine whether and how self-control would function as a mediator between delay of gratification at Time 1 and consideration of future consequences at Time 3. Results showed that delay of gratification predicted higher self-control, which in turn predicted higher concern for future consequences (CFC-F) and a lower concern for immediate consequences (CFC-I). Study 2 further explored this relationship by investigating whether temporal orientation grouping – high- vs. low-CFC – would predict subsequent levels of self-control and delay of gratification in a study of 71 undergraduates. Heart rate variability and cortisol were also examined. Results showed that by grouping participants in terms of CFC it was possible to predict subsequent levels of self-control and gratification delay abilities as expected. While there were no between-groups physiological differences, the methodology allowed for the novel discovery that cortisol was related to cognitive facets of self-control, while HRV was related to emotional functions associated with low self-control (i.e., worry and rumination). These results further highlight the importance of self-control in both our psychological and physiological functioning.