So what is the secret of effective self-control? According to psychologist David DeSteno (“A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses”), the first step would be to recognize that relying on mere willpower or cognitive control may not be the best strategy. These resources are easily depleted, and we have an almost limitless capacity to invent rationalizations for various lapses. Instead, we need to recognize the role of pro-social emotions like compassion and gratitude. As he and others have demonstrated, such “moral sentiments” can increase one’s capacity to resist unhealthy temptations by 12 percent or perhaps more. And how can we acquire such affective aptitudes? According to DeSteno, it can be taught “fairly easily.”
Here are the experimental findings De Steno cites to prove his case: in his lab, “the simple act of reflecting on some memory that evoked gratitude was enough to enhance financial patience.” Other researchers have similarly established that “empathy and compassion are similarly easy to enhance.” So “teaching people to think of their emotions as tools would allow them to ramp up beneficial emotions” when most needed. And if this is done on a mass scale, we could successfully “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.” Why, why are our new philosopher-kings so childishly naïve much of the time?