How Modern Psychology Can Help Us To Be Moral

And how it can reinforce the Christian understanding of human behaviour. images (2)

I recently listened to a recorded lecture series which was intended to help people increase their self-control in order to have better lives. It was called the Willpower Instinct and was by Kelly McGonigal.  It is available as a book or recorded lectures.

As I listened to this I had a number of thoughts. First, there is plenty here to help Christians to become more moral - I will describe these later on in this blog article.

Second, she approaches this subject as a pure scientist who observes the influences on human behavior in order to help people have great self-control. While I wouldn't quarrel with her observations as a scientist or her methods for controlling personal behavior based upon those observations; I would say that her explanations as to why they work were, for the most part, unproven hypothesis. In fact, it sounded to me as though a Christian understanding of the human person could add even more to what she was offering. I will discuss how in a separate article. Here I want to consider how it struck me that her presentation might help Christians.

These recorded lectures were based upon talks and workshops that she offers that use modern psychological research to help people to gain self control. From the sound of it a lot of her clients are addicts and failed dieters. Through her workshops, she helps people to assert their will power over their own behavior. She defines will power as the capacity to do what part of you really wants to do when another part of you really doesn't want to do it.

What it seems to boil down to in these lectures is trying to order our lives so that they are generally governed by our long term goals rather than short term responses. In order to do this we need to be able to do two things:

1. Do things that part of us doesn't want to do.

2. Resist the desire to do things that part of does want to do.

So, for the addict the need is to learn how to resist that part of us that desires the pleasure of taking whatever substance or indulging in whatever behavior we are addicted to. For those who are procrastinating over doing something that we know gives long term benefits, it is about learning to overcome that lethargy. And for the dieter it seems to a bit of everything: cultivating that part of you that wants to eat healthily, and trying to resist the desire of that part of you that wants to eat cream cakes all day long; and to overcome inertia towards exercising properly.

In this series of lectures she gives a series of exercises that she says have been shown to help people. I tried them out myself in order to try to overcome some bad habits and introduce some good habits into my life and they seemed to work.

The point to understand, she says, is that once a behavior becomes a problem the more we focus our attention on the problem, the more difficult it is to overcome it. So, for example, trying to tell ourselves constantly that we don't want to eat cream cakes is, paradoxically, more likely to increase cream cake consumption than reduce it. This is why dieting is so extraordinarily difficult.

Her suggestion for overcoming this hypothetical cream-cake problem is to introduce three simple exercises into our lives:

1. Find some little activity or group of activities that you don't like doing, but you know you can do regularly - for the slobs among us it could resolving to make your bed everyday, for example - and then resolve to do it regularly. This activity can be anything we choose except the problem behavior.

2. Find some little pleasure to which you are not too attached and then make a point of resisting it daily. Again, this can be anything you like except the problem behavior that you are trying to rid yourself of. This exercise strengthens our capacity to resist temptation if we do it regularly.

3. In a detached way, monitor how often you do the behavior that you really interested in trying to control, the problem behavior that you either want to either reduce or increase. It is important that you don't consciously try to reduce or increase the regularity. Just monitor how often you actually eat cream cakes each day. How many do you eat in a day or week, truthfully?

4. Set yourselves the highest ideals in life, but don't be too hard on yourself when you fall short. Draw a line underneath what happened and start again.

She then describes common pitfalls and temptations along the way and how to be prepared for them.

What struck me about this is how much it reinforces the traditional Christian practices of committing to fasts and abstinence; and to regular commitments to good works. It is not simply that these are good things in themselves, but also, as it was explained to me, if done regularly they will transform us. We become a person who is better at resisting the dangerous temptations; and more inclined to overcome acedia - a sloth towards doing what we ought to do.

So, just taking the examples of a regular routine I was given years ago: in habitual fasting we develop control over the passions and increases our capacity to resist our immediate wants. Similarly; in the habitual practice of loving action by, for example, doing some weekly voluntary commitment for a charity, it will make us better lovers who will take that increased capacity to love into all our relationships. If we habitually give thanks to God for the good things that we have in life regardless of we feel, then in time we will genuinely start to appreciate them and feel good about them. And if we habitually pray to God, regardless of how we feel during the prayer we will strengthen our faith.

The great value of what Ms McGonigal describes is the systematic approach to the subject which gives such great insights as to how to introduce such exercises into our lives so that they become very effective. Also, as in any situation where modern science reinforces traditional Christian practice, it helps to reinforce my faith still further and perhaps, you never know, might help persuade the odd atheist of the truth of the Faith.

What Ms McGonical does not do is help us very much to decide what we ought to want to do. What long term goals, for example, are going to make us happiest if we actually achieve them? Furthermore, in some of her explanations as to why man's desire for short term pleasure so often override what we know objectively will make us happier in the long run. More on this next time....