What fuels our decision-making: willpower or emotions? Researchers at Northeastern University are trying to see how the latter pans out.
“It’s our view that humans possess the capacity for emotion because it serves adaptive purposes,” study author David DeSteno said. “That doesn’t mean that sometimes emotions can’t lead you astray. They can, but so can reason.”
To see if patience could be cultivated through emotions, the team studied gratitude.
Here’s how the researchers tested gratitude and patience, from Northeastern:
To test whether gratitude really does improve our patience, specifically in the context of financial rewards, his team conducted a simple experiment. They evenly assigned 75 people to one of three conditions. One group had to recall an event that made them feel grateful. The second thought of an event that made them happy. And the final group considered the events of a typical day. Each wrote about the memory for five minutes.
Next the participants answered survey questions designed to help DeSteno’s team determine what emotion they were actually experiencing in the moment of the test. As expected, the people who recalled an experience of gratitude were feeling more grateful than the rest and those who recalled a happy moment felt happier.
Finally, the participants were asked to make 27 separate choices about receiving a sum of money now or a larger sum in the future. And just as DeSteno and his team suspected, the group that felt grateful during the experiment required a larger amount of immediate cash than their peers to convince them to forego the larger future value.
DeSteno’s team believes this is the first study to show how cultivating an emotion can actually lead to more patience.
If people get in a daily practice of doing a gratitude diary, it should buttress their patience or impulse control during the day. Or when you’re faced with a challenging temptation in the moment, rather than solely trying to exert willpower, simply stopping and thinking of something you’re grateful for should enhance your ability to make a wiser decision.