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Coming Soon: Control Yourself! The New, Emotional Science of Self-Regulation

Self-control: It’s the key to success, as anyone from the creators of Sesame Street to the authors of best-selling books will tell you.
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Self-control: It’s the key to success, as anyone from the creators of Sesame Street to the authors of best-selling books like How Children Succeed will tell you. But is cool, rational self-mastery really the best way to achieve it? For decades, the conventional wisdom in psychology—solidified by the now-iconic "marshmallow study"—has held that emotional responses are the problematic drivers of impulsive behavior. But David DeSteno, an experimental psychologist himself, has found that inducing certain emotions in test subjects makes them more, not less, likely to delay gratification. Documenting his own groundbreaking research, DeSteno argues that prosocial emotions—like empathy, gratitude, and even guilt—are the most deep-seated, highly evolved, and reliable engines of self-control available to humans. And given the overwhelming focus on willpower and executive function among experts, they are also the most overlooked.

David DeSteno's Pacific Standard feature is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Monday, September 15. Until then, an excerpt:

Here, to my mind, lies the key to understanding self-control’s true raison d’être. Evolutionarily speaking, the capacity for self-control didn’t arise because it increased success on standardized tests, dieting, or saving for retirement. None of those were relevant concerns for our progenitors. What did matter to one’s well-being for all of human history was the ability to navigate the social world successfully—the ability to be viewed as a virtuous, and therefore, desirable partner. A predilection to be fair, to be honest, to share, to be other-oriented to some degree, is what builds social capital. Avoid cheating your neighbor on a deal or cheating on your spouse with a lover, and you will, in both cases, ensure long-term gains at the cost of immediate pleasure. These are the qualities people look for in friends and leaders; they’re also ones that require an ability to resist temptation.

With this view in mind, I began to design and conduct empirical research related to decision-making and impulse control about eight years ago. At the time, I was specifically interested in the dynamics of trust and cooperation, and my lab group had been accruing finding after finding showing that manipulations of specific morally toned emotions enhanced both these behaviors—behaviors that themselves directly involve delays of gratification. Take trustworthiness, for example. At heart, any decision to behave in a trustworthy manner usually pits a desire to ensure long-term cooperation against a desire for immediate selfish gain. If you loan me $200 for rent and I don’t pay you back, I’m ahead in the short term. Long term, though, I’m likely to lose much more. You probably won’t help me again, and if I were to aggregate the losses over the years from not having you as a supportive friend, the $200 I kept today will look small in comparison. Being trustworthy, then, requires that I don’t give in to a desire to keep money that wasn’t mine, but rather that I repay you at immediate cost to myself.

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