Can you learn self-control?
The New York Times - 10/15/2014
The key, all of these writers say, is to counter something that is emotionally “hot” — desire, temptation, emotion — with something “cool” — the brain’s executive function. Forcing yourself to remember the negative effects of smoking rather than savoring the experience in the present requires the rational part of our minds (the prefrontal cortex) to override our physical desires (our limbic system).
David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, however, sees it differently. He argues in a detailed, fascinating piece in Pacific Standard that learning to deal with impulses isn’t so much about building up self-control as it is training yourself to appeal to certain emotions — that is, not countering “hot” with “cool” so much as tapping into the correct “hot” response. Mr. DeSteno argues that emotions that have a moral valence and prize a greater social good — responses like gratitude, compassion, pride — can also help us control our behavior in favor of a delayed payoff. These qualities have been selected for historically because they are more likely to benefit a larger social structure.