The children’s television show Sesame Street has always had a way of reflecting the zeitgeist in shades of Muppet fur. Consider, for instance, the evolution of Cookie Monster. For his first few decades on air, he was a simple character: blue, ravenous, cookie-fixated; a lovably unleashed id. A 1990 White House report dubbed him “the quintessential consumer.” But in the mid-2000s, as concern mounted over childhood obesity, Cookie Monster’s tastes became a problem. So he went from devouring cookies to guzzling bowls of fruit. Then, last year, he changed yet again, as the show’s curriculum designers saw in his voracious appetite a different kind of teaching opportunity.
For the show’s 44th season on the air, Cookie Monster was essentially repurposed into a full-time, walking, talking, googly-eyed vehicle for a set of intensely fashionable ideas about psychology and success. The blue Muppet was now, as an official Sesame Street website put it, a “poster child for someone needing to master self-regulation skills.”
For the duration of the new season, Cookie lusted after his favorite treat as much as ever. But when it came to acting on his desires, he sang, quite literally, a different tune: “Me want it, but me wait.” In sketch after sketch, song after song, he struggled mightily with self-control, strained to keep his focus on long-term goals, and collected mental strategies to delay gratification.
In one segment, Cookie Monster appears as a contestant on a game show and is presented with a single cookie on a plate. “This is The Waiting Game,” shouts the lantern-jawed Muppet host, “and if you wait to eat the cookie until I get back, you get two cookies.” As the host dashes away, Cookie Monster’s ordeal begins. He tries singing to himself. Then he pretends the cookie is only a picture. Next he distracts himself by playing with a toy, and finally imagines that the cookie is a smelly fish. “Me need new strategy,” he says as one mental trick gives out to another. A pair of back-up singers pops up every few seconds to croon that “good things come to those who wait.” Finally, the host returns with the second cookie. The exhausted monster’s patience has paid off.
If something about this sketch sounds familiar, there’s a reason. The writers of Sesame Street based it closely on one of the most famous experiments of 20th century psychological science—one that has become known colloquially as the marshmallow test. Substitute marshmallows for cookies and a four-year-old for Cookie Monster, and you have almost exactly the challenge that the psychologist Walter Mischel posed to kids again and again at a Stanford nursery school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The kids could eat the marshmallow placed in front of them, or delay gratification by resisting the temptation for a few minutes. If they were patient—if they could demonstrate self-control—they’d be rewarded with a second morsel of sugary goodness.
If we're going to conquer the temptation to favor short-term pleasures—from relatively minor ones like overeating and cheating, to global ones like favoring immediate profit over the long-term mitigation of climate change—we're going to need every weapon at our disposal.
The experiment was a fairly straightforward test of what economists call intertemporal choice: a decision that pits a larger delayed reward against a smaller immediate one. (In case you’re a grown-up who doesn’t care for marshmallows, here’s a another example: You can spend the extra $200 you have this week on the latest iPhone, or you can put it in your 401(k) to earn interest.) Although the logical answer is often pretty clear—choose the bigger reward, it’ll be better in the long run as long as you’re fairly certain the reward will arrive—humans have something of a built-in glitch when it comes to this type of decision: They tend to discount the value of future rewards excessively, and over-value immediate ones.
But the really profound upshot of the marshmallow test took years to be revealed. As the preschoolers who took part in Mischel’s study grew older, an astounding pattern became clear: The children who possessed the self-control to resist taking the first marshmallow followed very different life trajectories over the ensuing decade compared to those who didn’t. They scored higher on the SATs and measures of perceived intelligence, and they were better able to cope with stress and manage interpersonal interactions.
Mischel’s work has become the cornerstone of our modern view of self-control. His iconic study has been repeatedly and deservedly popularized for more than a decade, though we seem to have reached Peak Marshmallow in the past couple of years, egged on by magazine stories, viral media recreations of the experiment, bestsellers like Paul Tough’s much-hyped 2012 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, and pop culture treatments like the one on Sesame Street. Subsequent findings have identified the lack of self-control as a key contributing factor to societal ills ranging from insufficient savings to obesity to falling test scores and declining productivity. As the capacity to delay gratification seems more and more like destiny, we are becoming a culture obsessed with self-regulation.
Which lends a kind of overpowering weight to the question: If self-control is so important, how are we supposed to achieve it?
Mischel himself served as a consultant to Sesame Street for last year’s season, and Cookie Monster’s self-mastering strategies bear the clear imprint of his thinking on this question. In Mischel’s view, emotions are the bane of self-control: These “hot” responses make us impatient and cloud our logical judgment of what’s valuable. And so in his experiments, Mischel had children try to override their emotional responses to the marshmallow by having them use “cool” strategies like singing to distract themselves, focusing solely on the treat’s color, or pretending it was a cotton ball. When children tried these approaches, they demonstrated more willpower in resisting temptation.
Mischel is hardly alone in thinking of emotion as the villain in these scenarios. More than three centuries ago, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza pretty well encapsulated what is still the conventional wisdom about emotions in human affairs: that “in their desires and judgments of what is beneficial, [people] are carried away by their passions, which take no account of the future or anything else.” As Ethan Kross, the director of the Emotion and Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan, recently told me, suppressing emotion has pretty much always been advocated as a primary tool for resisting temptation.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Willpower, meanwhile, has traditionally been cast in the role of virtue against emotion’s vice. Today, experts on self-control like Roy Baumeister, an eminent psychologist and co-author of the recent bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, argue that a principal goal of willpower is to control emotions so that better decisions can be made. Likewise, the psychologist Angela Duckworth’s related concept of grit, which refers to the ability to persist in long-term goals, emphasizes the importance of using executive function—the conscious part of the mind that governs, directs, or overrides the action of subordinate processes—to combat desires and other “hot” emotional impulses. (Last year’s season of Sesame Street actually includes a segment in which Cookie Monster raps about executive function; truly, we have traveled a long way from “me want cookie.”)
The trouble with all this is that willpower, for all its merits, is full of holes. Maintaining it requires not only a good deal of effort but also a conducive environment. The University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs, one of the nation’s leading experts on willpower, has shown that seemingly irrelevant factors like being at home versus being at work, or even the need to make simple decisions unrelated to resisting temptation (“Should I wear a white shirt or a blue one?”) can diminish self-control. The result? People whose willpower is taxed fail to resist about one out of every six temptations they face, according to Vohs, even when they try using cognitive strategies to manage their “hot” responses. Willpower also appears to be quite finite in supply. One of Baumeister’s famous experiments demonstrated that, when people avoid eating chocolate chip cookies placed in front of them by using sheer determination and willpower, they become much more likely to give in to the temptation to shirk on a difficult task a few minutes later. If people don’t rest between temptations, it puts them in something of a death spiral in which each willpower success perversely increases the likelihood of willpower failure when facing the next temptation. In fact, Vohs’s most recent work shows that the people who appear the best at maintaining self-control succeed not because their willpower is actually greater, but because they employ the simple strategy of avoiding coming into contact with temptation in the first place.
So where does that leave us? There’s abundant evidence that self-control is an important skill for success and societal functioning, but we don’t have much to show for all our efforts aimed at devising strategies to cultivate it. As Duckworth herself has written, no one really yet knows how to teach people to cultivate self-control and grit in a way that endures.
It’s a safe bet that research on how to boost willpower will continue apace. But to my mind, our troubles may stem not so much from a failure to unlock some secret about willpower as from a rut in our thinking about emotion.
When I was a graduate student at Yale, one of my favorite professors, Bill McGuire, a giant in the field of social psychology, used to argue that when you’re looking for new theories, it helps to consider the opposite of the common view. He’d say, “The opposite of every true hypothesis is also true—you just need to find the right conditions.”
In his experiments, Mischel had children try to override their emotional responses to the marshmallow by having them use "cool" strategies like singing to distract themselves, focusing solely on the treat's color, or pretending it was a cotton ball.
Consider the following set of not-at-all uncommon conditions: Imagine you find yourself facing a serious problem with addiction. You decide to seek help. What advice are you likely to receive?
Recovering addicts—whether their temptation is alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or shopping—are all united by the experience of a seemingly irresistible craving for something that brings momentary pleasure at the expense of long-term well-being. These are people who face some of the mightiest battles to maintain self-control, with the highest stakes. Yet interestingly, many of the chief therapeutic programs for treating addiction don’t much emphasize or dwell upon willpower. Rather, what pops up again and again in therapies and support groups for addicts are strategies based on cultivating certain emotional responses.
Twelve-step and related programs routinely recommend evoking feelings of gratitude by counting one’s blessings and writing out a regular “gratitude list,” evoking compassion toward oneself and others through a conscious focus on forgiveness, or taking pride in earning “sobriety coins” or related tokens of successful self-control. David Burgdorf, the director of training at the Betty Ford Center, for instance, comes out strongly in favor of such techniques. So do the so-called Big Book and Living Sober, two of the key texts of Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather than ignore all emotions, these programs try to heighten specific ones.
Now, it’s certainly possible that this divergence from the usual set of cool, cognitive strategies for resisting temptation arises from the possibility that the brains of addicts, as some suggest, aren’t like those of the rest of the population. It’s also true that the efficacy of strategies like counting one’s blessings has yet to be subjected to rigorous scientific analysis in the context of addiction; it’s possible such strategies don’t work quite as well as 12-step advocates think they do.
But there’s another equally likely, and potentially profound, possibility that’s worth considering when it comes to understanding how self-control works. It’s a possibility that my lab at Northeastern University has been exploring in a series of experiments for the past few years: Maybe these kinds of emotion-based strategies have persisted in support groups because the usual methods to combat temptation—those based on willpower—simply aren’t strong enough to do the job. Maybe we, as individuals and as a society, have bet on the wrong horse. Maybe shortsightedness in decisions among the general populace is so widespread because we’re not using the most powerful weapons against temptation that are available to us—the ones based on emotion, not reason and cognitive control.
THE IDEA THAT EMOTIONAL responses can only hinder long-range thinking makes very little sense when you step back and think about how the mind truly works. There is almost universal agreement among psychologists studying emotion that these mental states exist to aid humans in meeting challenges. They are the engines that drive us toward adaptive behaviors in rapid and efficient ways. The state we call fear, for example, prepares our body to deal with threat and alters our decisions, making us proceed more cautiously. We don’t have to “think” about and institute such preparations; they happen automatically. And although it’s true that emotions can be problematic when experienced in inappropriate contexts or too intensely, it’s just as true that if emotions were always troublesome—if they always resulted in negative outcomes—they would have been extinguished by natural selection long ago.
Yet interestingly, addiction treatment programs don't much emphasize subduing emotions with willpower. Rather, what pops up again and again in support groups are strategies based on cultivating certain emotional responses.
When it comes to self-control, there’s certainly evidence that some emotions work against long-term thinking. In the buzzing world of neuroeconomics, brilliant scholars like the Harvard economist David Laibson and the Carnegie Mellon decision scientist George Loewenstein have shown that limbic systems of the brain—areas thought to involve emotion—specifically devalue future rewards. But there’s little reason to believe that this research examines the full range of human emotions. Yes, there are emotions that can lead to vice (envy, lust, anger). But there are also emotions associated with virtue (gratitude, compassion, love). At the same time, while it’s true that reason and willpower can engender virtuous action—as when people adhere to a code of ethics or a long-range plan—they can just as easily be used to motivate and justify quite impulsive behavior. (More on this later.) The first step in understanding how self-control really works, then, is to give up the idea that emotions necessarily lead to impatience.
Although hinted at by early economists, like Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the idea that certain emotions might be useful in solving the problem of self-control was developed by the Cornell economist Robert Frank in the 1980s. Frank recognized that all humans possess a desire for immediate reward; he also knew that successful cooperation often requires individuals to suppress that desire. So he theorized that certain, socially oriented emotions like compassion or gratitude might serve two functions: to help individuals place a greater value on future rewards, and to send a social signal to others. If a potential business partner typically expressed compassion or gratitude, he’d probably be less likely to act selfishly and, thus, be a better partner choice than someone who always seemed self-absorbed and entitled.
Remember that when Mischel followed the children who took part in his experiment, he found that enhanced self-control didn’t just predict future success on performance-based measures like SAT scores—it also predicted superior social competencies later in life. Subsequent research led by the psychologist David Funder has confirmed that children with a greater ability to delay gratification at four years of age also possessed more genuine, close, and solid relationships many years later.
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.
Testing these ideas about emotions and trustworthiness was a fairly simple proposition. We recruited people for an experiment on financial decision-making, and as each participant arrived, we set them to work at a computer to perform a series of tasks that were designed to be quite tedious. We needed a way to make some of them feel gratitude, so, unbeknownst to the participants, we had rigged about half of the computers to “crash” toward the end of the session, leading the victims to believe they’d have to redo a lot of the tedious work. As each let out a sigh, a cry, or an expletive at the fake shutdown, the person working on the computer next to them—who appeared to be another participant but was in actuality an actor working for us—would come over to them to see what was wrong and then, through predetermined steps, “fix” the computer. The result? Expressions of gratitude almost every time. (The only exceptions were the tech-savvy two percent or so of participants, who had already started to hack their way out of our illusory crash.)
After this incident (or the normal completion of the task for those who weren’t assigned to the “crash” condition), we got to the real experiment, which took the form of an economic game: We moved participants to isolated rooms and handed them four tokens. We paired each with a partner who was a complete stranger. We told the subjects that each token was worth $1 to the person who possessed it at the start of the game, but $2 to the partner. We then left each alone in their individual cubicles to make decisions about whether they wanted to exchange tokens with their partner. The object of the game was to make money, but the game was intentionally designed so that there were two ways to do this. If the partners simply swapped all their tokens, each would end up with $8 instead of $4: an equally distributed doubling of their money. But if an individual wanted to maximize his own gain, there was a second option: give nothing, hoping that your partner would give all of her tokens to you. In this scenario, the greedy person would triple his money to $12, while his partner would be left with nothing but hurt feelings. It’s a classic example of pitting desires for immediate gain against the potential for long-term loss in building relationships.
How did feelings of gratitude alter greedy, untrustworthy behavior? As we reported in an article published in the journal Emotion, the results were quite clear. On average, the people who received help—and expressed gratitude for it—following their computer crash gave 25 percent more tokens to their partners. Put simply, feelings of gratitude nudged people to restrain their greed; the more grateful they felt, the less selfishly they acted, and the more willing they were to cooperate with people they didn’t know from Adam.
Given these findings, and our growing belief that gratitude does indeed directly alter how much people value future versus immediate rewards, we decided to put our belief to a very stringent test: an adult version of the marshmallow experiment. Of course, not all adults like marshmallows, so my research team, along with our decision-science collaborators—Harvard’s Jennifer Learner and the University of California-Riverside’s Ye Li—employed a slightly different reward: cold, hard cash.
The experiment, published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, worked like this. First, we asked participants to describe in writing one of three types of events: something that made them feel grateful, something that made them feel happy and laugh, or the events of their typical day. As you might guess, this task, which was couched as a memory experiment, really served to induce one of three emotional states: gratitude, happiness, or a relatively neutral feeling. Then, using what has become a standard method for assessing financial impulsivity, we had participants answer a series of 27 questions. Each question took the form, “Would you rather have $X now, or $Y in Z days?” In all 27 variations, Y was greater than X. So, for example, a participant might be asked if she’d rather have $55 now or $75 in 61 days—the adult analogue of one marshmallow now or two later. And just to ensure that people were motivated to tell us what they really desired, these weren’t hypothetical questions. The stakes were real. We told participants that, for some of them, one of the questions would be picked at random—and their answer honored. So, if we picked the question that had asked “Would you rather receive $55 now or $75 in 61 days?” we’d immediately give the participant $55 if she’d chosen “now,” or, 61 days later, we’d mail her a check for $75.
In the 1980s, Robert Frank theorized that certain, socially oriented emotions like compassion or gratitude might serve two functions: to help individuals to place a greater value on future rewards, and to send a social signal to others.
Here again, the impact of gratitude on self-control became apparent. People who were feeling happy were just as impatient as those who were feeling neutral. Both groups significantly discounted the value of future rewards—meaning they sold their future selves short. On average, they exhibited an annual discount factor of 0.18, meaning that they’d give up the chance to receive $100 a year from now in order to receive $18 immediately. Those who had been induced to feel grateful, however, were significantly more future-oriented. They required $30 now before forgoing the future $100 reward—a 12 percent increase, resulting only from a simple and fleeting nudge toward feeling grateful.
AT THIS POINT, YOU might be wondering what’s so special about gratitude. In reality, it’s not gratitude per se that’s important, but rather the class of emotions to which it belongs. Much as Robert Frank theorized in the 1980s, the emotions that enhance self-control are indeed the ones that are positively related to social life, whose purpose is to grease the wheels of social interaction by fostering moral behavior. While you might feel disgusted at the sight of carrion, or happy in response to a sunny day, you feel grateful when someone does something for you. You feel shame when you’re worried someone will think less of you. You feel pride when you believe you’ve succeeded in a way people will value. These and similar emotions are the ones that have helped us build social relationships for millennia, by combating impulses to be self-centered or lazy through increasing the value we attach to long-term rewards.
A quick look at the published work coming from my research group over the past decade makes the point. Our work, for example, clearly shows that pride leads people to persevere on difficult tasks. When we give participants acclaim for their performance on any type of test, they’ll work longer and harder to hone the relevant skill, with the length of time they persevere deriving directly from the amount of pride they felt when receiving acclaim from those around them. Compassion—another morally toned emotion—also leads to behaviors that go against immediate gratification. For instance, when we increase the compassion individuals feel for another by highlighting the similarities they share with him or her, they’ll expend considerably more effort to help that other person when needed, even at immediate cost to themselves. In these and similar cases, socially oriented emotions automatically facilitate decisions and behaviors that foster the long-term gains that come from building bonds with others.
Taken together, such findings make it clear that there are two routes to self-control: cognitive strategies that depend on executive function, willpower, and the like; and emotional strategies that rely on the cultivation of specific feelings. You might, for instance, resist the temptation to overeat by trying to cognitively re-frame treats as unhealthy rather than delicious. Alternatively, you can go the route of focusing on the pride you felt, or will feel, on losing those initial few pounds. You might prevent yourself from making an impulse purchase by placing your money in an account with stiff penalties for early withdrawal—a type of strategy known as precommitment, which, interestingly, in and of itself implicitly acknowledges the limits of willpower. Or you might do the same by taking a few minutes to stop and count your blessings.
Which route is the better one? For two reasons, I think the less frequently advocated path—the emotional one—might just prove superior for enhancing self-control.
The first is that, unlike strategies based on cultivating emotions, those based on cognitive mechanisms involving executive control are, as you’ll recall, easily exhausted. As work by Kathleen Vohs, Roy Baumeister, and their colleagues has demonstrated time and again, squelching desire quickly leaves willpower depleted. As if that were not problematic enough, the effects of relying on willpower to dampen emotional desires—a strategy recommended by many leading self-control theorists like Baumeister and Mischel—can be especially pernicious. Research by the Stanford psychologist James Gross, one of the nation’s leading experts on the science of emotion regulation, shows that suppressing emotions wreaks havoc on the mind and body. It hinders memory, increases physiological stress, and negatively impacts communication with others. Using this strategy, then, poses two hazards. Not only does it increase the odds that you’ll give in to temptation later; it can also debilitate thinking, learning, memory, social bonding, and communication. For an adult trying to resist a cigarette or an extra pull of the slot machine lever, these reduced capacities are a handicap; for a child trying to maintain focus on schoolwork and remain calm with peers, they can be an immense and abiding hindrance to their education and socialization.
The second reason I favor the emotional route is this: We often make the mistake of assuming that cognition and reasoning will always favor the most objectively rational, long-term outcome. But in reality, reasoning is tainted by bias; we can rationalize pretty much anything if it suits our immediate needs. Let me give you an example. Cheating is one of the phenomena I’ve studied with the Claremont McKenna psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo. We do it by bringing people into a lab, one by one, and telling them that we’re examining performance on two types of tasks: a short, fun task that involves watching videos, and a long and onerous task that involves solving logic problems and related taxing puzzles. We give them the option of flipping a virtual coin to decide which task they’ll get, noting to them that most people believe flipping a coin is the fairest procedure. We next inform them that, to keep numbers balanced, the next person to arrive will be saddled with whichever task remains. We then leave them alone, but watch them via hidden camera.
What happens? Every time, the story is the same. Approximately 90 percent of people cheat: They don’t flip it at all, or they flip it repeatedly to get the answer they want (which is basically equivalent to not flipping it at all). They assign themselves the easy task, knowing full well that in so doing, they’re unfairly committing the next person to drudgery. When we ask people from this research pool if it would be immoral not to flip the coin, 100 percent of them say yes. Yet 90 percent end up doing so anyway.
The most interesting part, though, isn’t the fact that so many people give in to a desire for immediate gain at another’s expense. Rather, it’s the fact that most of them still view their actions as moral afterward even though they’re more than willing to condemn others for cheating in the same way. When we ask participants why they didn’t flip the coin, they usually create a story to justify their actions: They had to be somewhere; the next person probably likes logic problems more than they do. Each answer is, of course, a post hoc rationalization. The reason we know this is that if, after the experiment, we ask participants to perform some mental task—tell them to remember a certain series of numbers, say—and only then ask them whether they behaved immorally or impulsively during the cheating experiment, they actually cop to their bad behavior. Saddled with such a “cognitive load,” the participants don’t have the mental bandwidth to justify their actions.
The feelings of guilt are there under the surface, pulling people to restrain their desire for immediate gain, but the moral emotion is overridden by a conscious mind that “talks itself” into the expedient route—a mind that finds a way to justify what would otherwise be seen as a lack of self-control. The same dynamic comes into play time and again when resisting temptation is concerned. I deserve an extra drink, a smoke, a sweet, a break, or a luxury today. Why? It’s been a long week. I had an argument with my spouse. Fill in the blank.
SO WHAT'S THE ANSWER to the problem of self-control? Any strategy based solely on forcing adherence to a set of virtues through a bunch of cool-headed, cognitive strategies and a list of “thou shalt nots” is a fragile one. That’s not to say it won’t work at times, but it’s based on cognitive resources that can and do fail often. Of course, relying blindly on emotions would be just as foolish, as they, too, can certainly lead one astray. Rather, the answer is to cultivate the right emotions, the prosocial ones, in daily life. These emotions— gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up, without requiring cognitive effort on our part, to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll be giving ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.
We may also partially solve the question of how to instill grit. The concept of grit, which is sometimes defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” implicitly acknowledges that the capacity for self-control isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to predicting success; the motivation to resist temptation and persist is equally important. As the University of Michigan’s Ethan Kross told me, “For self-control to work correctly, a person needs two things: ability and motivation.” One or the other alone just won’t cut it. Emotions, at base, are the motivating engines of behavior. The beauty, then, of cultivating moral, socially oriented emotions is that they will serve not only to increase the value we attach to future gains, but also automatically and efficiently drive the behaviors in question. They provide the passion for success, irrespective of whether we consciously recognize it.
Sure enough, feelings of gratitude nudge people to restrain their greed. Pride leads us to persevere on difficult tasks. And compassion leads to behaviors that go against immediate gratification.
So how readily can these emotion-based strategies be taught? Fairly easily, I think. Remember that, in my lab, the simple act of reflecting on some memory that evoked gratitude was enough to enhance financial patience. Other research, unrelated to self-control, has likewise found that stimulating gratitude is relatively easy, and has measurable effects. The psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough have found that simply assigning research participants to keep gratitude diaries over several weeks enhanced the partici- pants’ physical and mental well-being. (Cultivating an attitude of gratitude might sound cheesy, but those bumper stickers are onto something.) Empathy and compassion are similarly easy to enhance. As we’ve shown in our research, simply identifying links you share with others—associations as simple as liking the same music or sports teams—is enough to nudge your mind to take their perspectives and, thereby, increase the compassion you’ll feel for them when needed.
With respect to specifically targeting self-control, we’re about to launch multi-year projects aimed at using several emotions to enhance long-term health by targeting diet and exercise. For example, if physicians regularly help patients to feel proud about even their baby steps toward resisting fatty foods or doing exercise—rather than simply telling them what they need to do—we’d expect better outcomes and less backsliding. The emotions should build perseverance from the bottom up, just as they did in our lab studies.
How effective these techniques will be across long periods of time, of course, remains to be seen. But recall the 12 percent increase in value that grateful people placed on long-term rewards in our grown-up version of the marshmallow test. This might not seem like a lot at first, but if it could be scaled and even partially reproduced in other contexts, the consequences could be tremendous. A recent study from the payroll giant ADP found that less than half of young workers are putting money aside for retirement, and even those who do put away far too little: 4.9 percent of annual salary on average, less than a third of the 15 percent recommended by most financial advisors. Some people simply don’t have the resources to save for retirement, of course, but it’s clear from research that the pervasive discounting of future rewards is also part of the problem. The ability to nudge savings up by just a few percentage points could make a significant difference.
But first we need to change the way we think about feelings. American educators and businesses do pay some mind to the importance of emotions, often under the heading of something called social-emotional learning. On Sesame Street, countless sketches and skits—including a recent kid-friendly spoof of Mad Men, in which a group of Muppet ad executives learn to tell apart mad, sad, and happy pictures—help preschoolers learn to identify and understand the emotions of others and to control their own. Workplaces that prize so-called emotional intelligence often emphasize similar skills. But as my friend and graduate school advisor, Yale president Peter Salovey—one of the fathers of the concept of emotional intelligence—told me, “Understanding and managing emotions are important, but learning how to use emotions to achieve a goal is also a central part of emotional intelligence.” Unfortunately, it’s also the part that is most often neglected by educators and corporate trainers. Teaching people to think of their emotions as tools would allow them to ramp up beneficial emotions at moments of potential temptation. Athletes psych themselves up before an event; why can’t consumers amp up a feeling of gratitude before passing the “impulse buy” aisle on their way to the check out line?
The lack of attention we as a society give to learning how to use emotions to reach goals is regrettable, because if we’re going to conquer the temptation to favor short-term pleasures—from relatively minor ones like overeating and cheating to global ones like favoring immediate profit over the long-term mitigation of climate change—we’re going to need every weapon at our disposal. And while willpower certainly offers assistance, we’ve been neglecting the weapon that comes straight from our nature as innately social beings, not just rational, calculating loners. We can’t just exert self-control by willing ourselves to resist the first marshmallow or averting our eyes from it; we have to be grateful that someone’s offering it to us in the first place.
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