If any reinforcer is presented after a delayed interval, such reinforcers are called Delayed reinforcers.
For example, if a student is only given a treat on completing his homework after a certain while, this might not make him continue completing his homework regularly as the result isn't immediate. But, It’s not to say that delayed reinforcement never works. Different individuals have different requirements and so the process of reinforcement effective on them is also different.
Skinner’s theory on Operant Conditioning Learning, the rat ran about performing random behaviors like sniffing, scratching, moving around and so on, until it stumbled upon a lever, upon which it was rewarded with food.
If the rat hadn’t been rewarded with food immediately after the lever was pressed, the rat might not have been reinforced with the behavior of pressing the lever. In case of delayed reinforcement, chances are that any different behavior than the one intended might also be reinforced.
Let’s consider a scenario that the rat wasn’t immediately served with food every time it pressed the lever. If the observer had not seen the rat pressing a lever or let’s say that the reinforcement wasn’t provided immediately and the delay lasted more than a minute. The rat, at which time, would have tried some other behaviors like moving around, scratching the walls and so on. This would lead to the reinforcement of other incidental behaviors like scratching, moving around and the likes of it, which were intervened following the lever press. Thus, it can be said that delayed reinforcement might not be as effective as immediate reinforcement.
The phenomenon of delayed reinforcement is different in humans than it is in rats. For instance, reinforcers like paycheck at the end of the week, good grade at the end of every semester, championship title at the end of the season, etc, are the delayed reinforcements which are not achieved immediately but still persuade us human to work for it.
Delayed gratification is also linked with maturity.
Learning to control our impulses in order to achieve more valued rewards is a big step toward maturity. (Logue 1998a, b)
No wonder children who make such choices tend to become socially competent and high-achieving adults. (Mischel et al., 1989