Harnessing the Power of Prosocial Emotions for Our Future Selves

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, spoke with us about his new book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. In it, he explores how certain prosocial emotions, such as gratitude, compassion, and pride, can help us succeed in life when things like rationality and willpower power fall short. (You can also read his recent essay in The New York Times Sunday Review, “The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions.”) In our conversation below, we discuss the limitations of willpower, how rationality can sometimes get us into trouble, and why prosocial emotions can help us not succumb to the temptations of the present moment.

Dave Nussbaum: One of the central arguments of your book Emotional Success is that harnessing our willpower to achieve success might not be as good an idea as we’ve been led to believe. Why is that?

David DeSteno: For a few reasons. One is I think willpower tends to be rather fragile. There’s lots of work out there suggesting that willpower wanes over time.

There’s a debate on why that is. I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s due to glucose or sugar or anything like that, but what we know is that over time, on difficult tasks, especially ones that are cognitively involving, maintaining willpower to suppress our desire to do something else becomes difficult. The feelings of effort that are attached to the cost of suppressing those desires go up. Willpower is always a battle. We’re struggling, we’re trying to fight a desire because it’s normal human tendency to discount the value of the future. So we’re trying to overcome something in the present that we want to do more. That’s one problem.

Another problem is that engaging in that struggle tends to be stressful and there’s a lot of work suggesting that using executive function to suppress desires for immediate gratification takes a toll on the body in terms of stress.

I think the third, under-appreciated, aspect is that relying on willpower to make us achieve our goals assumes that we know how best to do it. It assumes that rationality’s always going to favor what’s better for the long term, and that’s simply not the case. Reasoning is motivated. There are lots of times when people can talk themselves into why it’s justifiable to spend your money on a new iPhone rather than save it, or not study and go out. If we’re not valuing our long term goals correctly in the first place, then we’re not even going to invoke willpower to try and persevere toward it. I think these are the problems with a rational willpower-based approach to self-control.

DN: I­­’d love to unpack that a little bit because you’ve set up this classic dichotomy between reason and emotion but you’ve thrown in a twist. Sometimes we use the powers of reason to rationalize things that maybe we shouldn’t. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that process works?

DD: We’re trying to solve that problem on both the rational and the emotional level. What becomes important is to figure out which system to trust when and why. With emotions, there are certainly some emotions that make you want satisfaction in the moment. When you feel lust, you want satisfaction in the moment. When you feel anger, you’re going to act out. But there are other, social, emotions that underlie favoring the long term.

So why is reason a problem? Let me give you an example. In our work, we study cheating behavior. We’ll bring people into the lab and we’ll say, “Look, there’s two tasks that need to be done—a really fun one that takes about 10 minutes and a really long and onerous one takes about 45 minutes. Here’s a coin to flip.” It’s actually a virtual coin flipper so we can control what comes up. “If you get heads, you’re going to do the short fun one, if you get tails, you’re going to do the long and onerous one. We’re going to leave you alone and whatever task you don’t do, the person sitting outside in the hall will have to do.”

Now, if you ask people, “What should you do?” it’s the only time I get unanimous data in my life. Fully 100 percent of them say you should always flip the coin and do what it tells you to do. Yet in our experiments 90 percent of people do one of two things. They either don’t use the virtual coin flipper and give themselves the easy task, or they flip it and when it comes up the wrong way, they flip it again until they get the answer they want. So how do 90 percent of people cheat when 100 percent of people say no you should never do this?

If you think about why self-control exists, it’s not there so we could save for retirement steadily or not have a marshmallow. The reason self-control exists is because for millennia what mattered for humans’ success was the ability to cooperate with other people.

Well, if you ask these people afterward why they behaved like this, they wiggle their way out of it. They rate their own moral behavior in cheating as much more acceptable than when they watch somebody else do the same thing. And they’ll create a story for why. “Oh, well, I usually wouldn’t cheat, but today I had a medical appointment—I just couldn’t take a chance to be late.” Or my favorite is one guy who said, “You know, the guy was sitting in the hall next to me, he looked like an engineering major and I thought he would like those more difficult logic problems.”

So people might say, “Well, of course what’s happening here is self-control is failing. They’re taking the easy way out because they think it’s anonymous and nobody will know.” It’s because their emotions are telling them to take the easy way out.

But, if you put them under cognitive load [e.g., occupy their minds with another task], something different happens. We inhibit their ability to reason about their behaviors.

When you put them under load, that hypocrisy goes away. That is, they realize what they did is as wrong and cheating as when somebody else cheats and they condemn themselves as much as they condemn somebody else. The reason why is they’re feeling the sense of guilt. So it’s really the emotions that are pushing them to do the fair thing, but if we give them 30 seconds to rationalize a way out of it, they do that instead.

Reason isn’t a guarantee that we’re going to try and control ourselves. Some of the worst things humans have ever done have happened through rationalization. My argument with prosocial emotions is they’re only going to push you one way. The reason we have prosocial emotions is to foster character. Because that’s what mattered for success for a millennia—behaving in a way that makes you a valuable member of your group. Those emotions are not going to succumb to that type of motivated-reasoning process.

DN: That’s what I wanted to turn to next—this idea that, as opposed to some emotions like desire, you’ve identified a set of prosocial emotions that may help you with self-control.

DD: If you think about why self-control exists, it’s not there so we could save for retirement steadily or not have a marshmallow. The reason self-control exists is because for millennia what mattered for humans’ success was the ability to cooperate with other people. We’re talking about romantic relationships and group relationships, where what ensured survival was the ability to cooperate. For me, cooperation is really an example of intertemporal choice: “I’m accepting a sacrifice now so that I can build a relationship with you in the long term.”

In the short term, being a cheater allows you to garner resources. But over time, people aren’t going to want to interact with you and you lose all those aggregated gains. So for the long haul, people who cooperate, people who are fair, who are good-bets for being trustworthy are the ones who succeed. That always requires some level of self-control—to not cheat, to pay back your debts, to cultivate skills that those around you value.

So what underlies that? For most people who aren’t economists, it’s not a strategic decision. The reason we help other people, the reason we pay people back, is because we feel like we should and it’s these emotions like gratitude and compassion and authentic feeling of pride, not hubris, that make us do it. They can also help you help another important person to yourself, and that is your own future self. What we’ve been doing in my lab is showing how these emotions generally make us pay back our debts, help other people, give them resources, share resources, etcetera.

DN: So it’s not that you think you should exercise self-control—it’s often that you feel that you should?

DD: Yes, it’s more that you feel that way. What was shown is that if we had people do temporal discounting tasks—so we ask people, “Would you rather have X dollars now or Y dollars later?” and we vary the amount of time and the amount of money—what we see is that when people are feeling grateful—and other people have done this with pride—it reduces the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. In other words, we value the future more.

What that means is it kind of eases self-control from the bottom up. It’s not a struggle to overcome a desire for immediate pleasure, because we don’t value the future as much as the present. By making us value the future more in the first place, we’re just going to pursue it more. It’s not a struggle. It makes self-control easier. It’s not a corrective process, it just makes us behave in ways that head toward what we value more by combating the tendency to discount the future.

DN: Is it a matter of simply trying to cultivate these emotions—thinking about how you’re grateful, as you might do in an experiment? Or is there some larger way in which we have to reimagine our goals, our life? What it is we are doing that will generate these emotions spontaneously?

DD: How you do it, I think, is the big question. What we’ve found is that it can be something very simple. For example, doing gratitude journaling, reflecting on what you’re grateful for in life, works. The trick is, of course, we have the five things in life that we’re the most grateful for. You can’t think about those every day, because you’ll habituate to them and they’ll lose their power. But just being grateful for minor things that happen to you that day. Someone who let you into the traffic line on the highway, someone who gave you directions.

What I like to say is these emotions give you not only grit but grace.

For compassion, one thing that we found that really increases compassion is practicing mindfulness. We’ve shown over three weeks of practicing mindfulness, people’s engagement and costly compassionate behavior, that is sacrificing to help other people, goes up. Another way to encourage compassion is to look for similarities that you have with those around you. We tend to feel empathy and compassion for those who are more similar to us. So looking for similarities to bridge differences increases compassion.

Pride comes from taking pride in steps along the way. We all set goals for ourselves, but if you’re critical all the way until you get that goal, it can be very disheartening. If you take pride in the baby steps along the way and reflect on your accomplishments, that can be very useful as well.

DN: As you look out into the world, what are some promising signs that you see that tell you that maybe we could move in the direction of cultivating prosocial emotions?

DD: I don’t know. There’s dispiriting findings showing that empathy and compassion have been declining steadily since the 70s. Pride, I think, is useful if it’s not arrogant egotism, which we’ve seen a lot of these days as well.

David Brooks spends a lot of time talking about what he calls the resume virtues versus eulogy virtues. The resume virtues help us succeed in our career. The eulogy virtues are those that we hope we’ll be remembered for and that allow us to build good social relationships with people—what you would call character.

To me, there’s really not a dichotomy between these two. There only appears to be because of the way that we tend to pursue success right now, which is an interesting and is kind of individualized, atomized, very competitive way, relying on willpower to get where we want to go and planning and these cognitive strategies.

If you cultivate these emotions, you’re building good character. You’re behaving in ways that most of us would see as morally upstanding. Gratitude, compassion, they make you have self-control, they make you have loyalty, they make you generous, they make you warm. But what we’re finding now is that they’re also giving you a boost in grit itself. What I like to say is these emotions give you not only grit but grace. They give you the ability to persevere and to sacrifice to help your future self as well as to help other people. In doing that, they get rid of that dichotomy between resume and eulogy virtues and they let us pursue success in a way that, traditionally, historically, evolutionary, was important in terms of building good social capital. But also in ways that now are hugely important to our own success in an individualized society.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.