Impulse refers to a person’s base inner drive or temptation. It is the urge we have before we apply impulse control which restrains these urges.
For instance, we may have the impulse to cry, have an emotional outburst, laugh out loud, spend money we shouldn’t, and eat that cake!
Impulsive behavior was a central concept in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, where he believed our impulses came from a part of our brain called the id. To overcome these impulses, we rely on our ego, which redirects impulses toward more prosocial behaviors, and superego which filters impulses through rules of morality and social norms to keep the id in check.
More examples of impulsivity are provided below.
- Impulse Eating: Sometimes, we eat on an impulse without thought for whether we actually need the food. Generally, this doesn’t cause enormous problems and giving yourself a treat is a common behavior, but it can lead to obesity if it is regular and uncontrollable. Examples of this might include grabbing a chocolate bar at the checkout line of the grocery store, or ordering a late-night pizza despite being on a diet. Excessive impulse eating can lead to feelings of guilt.
- Impulse Shopping: Impulse shopping might occur when you purchase products on a whim, without regard for whether you can afford it. If a person purchases treats that are affordable to them, it may still be impulsive, but does not have as severe negative consequences. For instance, you might be walking past a store, see a sale sign, and decide to buy a new pair of shoes, even if you don’t need them.
- Anger Impulses: Some people have what we call ‘anger management issues’, which refers to giving into the impulse to act violently, either physically or verbally. For instance, you might be in a heated argument with someone, and they say something that triggers you, causing you to shout or say something hurtful in response without thinking.
- Impulsive Risk-Taking: This is more common among teenagers, who haven’t got the impulse control of adults, particularly when it comes to evaluating risks. This might take the form of driving recklessly or above the speed limit, or doing something on a dare that is obviously risky. These impulses are generally driven by a desire for excitement, especially among youths, but may also represent disregard for one’s own personal safety.
- Self-harm Impulses: Some people experience the impulse to harm themselves if they are experiencing emotional pain, with the idea that physical harm can cover-up or distract from emotional harm. It’s crucial to note that this is a serious mental health issue that requires immediate professional attention.
- Impulse to Interrupt: We all will likely have experienced this, especially in workplace or school sitautions. And, of course, we all have experienced this desire ourselves. If we’re listening to someone who we disagree with, or if we want them to clarify a point. Most of us will politely wait. But others of us will give in to the deep-down urge to interrupt immediately and say our piece. We see it all the time, for example, in combative television interviews. The impulse to interrupt often comes from a place of enthusiasm or eagerness, but it can also be perceived as rude or disrespectful.
- Impulse to procrastinate: An impulsive person may tend to procrastinate because that’s what we feel the deep-down urge to do. It’s difficult to do hard work, so instead, we play on our games – despite looking like it’s doing nothing, it’s actually engaging in impulsive behaviors. This impulse usually stems from a desire to avoid discomfort or stress but can lead to decreased productivity and simply delays stress until later on.
- Impulse to Lie: When we feel like we’re backed into a corner, we tend to feel a deepd-down desire to lie our way out of the situation in order to avoid the discomfort of being in trouble or being caught-out doing the wrong thing. This is a simple function of Freud’s pleasure principle (where we fundamentally seek pleasure and avoid pain). The impulse to lie is often a defense mechanism, but it can erode trust and cause problems in relationships.
- Impulsive Philanthropy: Some particularly generous people who are driven by the desire to see others happy may impulsively spend money on others. For example, they might see a homeless person and impulsively decide to give some money, regardless of whether they have the money spare to do it. While this impulse does of course come from a good place and has some great upsides, it can also have negative consequences, for example if the person has been bamboozled by the person asking for money, of if they don’t really have any funds to donate. Sometimes, such people need to learn some financial literacy.
- Impulse to Socialize: Some people may feel a deep-down desire to be around others, and even at times when they know they should not be doing it, they will socialize anyway. For example, in college, a student might go out with their friends despite knowing they have an exam the next day that they should be studying for This impulse might be especially strong during periods of solitude or when you’re feeling lonely.
- Impulse to Share: Sometimes, a person will give away too much information (given the online monicker ‘TMI’). In the age of social media, it’s become common for people to impulsively share thoughts, feelings, or experiences online (which they often delete later on when they regret it!). Some people even have the ability to bring this impulse out in others!
- Impulse to Clean or Organize: This impulse can be unhealthy, such as when a person suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This particularly comes out in times of stress and anxiety, or when a person feels the drive to control everything in their environment. Freud would have identified this in his patients and seen it as a mental process connected to childhood trauma.
- Impulse to Move or Fidget: We see this in just about all children. They find it hard to sit still for long, so they wriggle in their seats endlessly. Adults also feel this impulse, but, according to Freud, we have the ego which helps us to control our impulses, and we could control and restrain our urges, at least for some time.
- Impulse to Check Devices: I am very guilty of this. For me, it is at a habitual level – I do it before I even realize I’ve done it. To reverse this habit, we might have to downgrade to a less tech-connected device, leave our devices in the drawers, or otherwise keep them out of reach to control our impulsive behaviors.
- Impulse to Create: Some people are creative-types. They feel a deep-down need to create things. This could be painting, writing, cooking, or making music. For instance, a writer might wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea, and they feel this instant need to write it down. They are wide awake, straight away, because they have suddenly been visited by Muse, the goddess of creativity and art.
- Impulse to Apologize: Some people might impulsively apologize, even when they are not at fault. They often develop this as a learned habit, that has been developed out of a sense of an inferiority complex, or even a cultural norm. It might be a sign that the person doesn’t want to get in others’ way or feels like they’re always taking up space that they don’t deserve. This can reveal lack of self-confidence, but over-compensating and not apologizing can also be bad!
- Impulse to Laugh: Sometimes, the impulse to laugh is a great thing. Laughing with friends and loved ones is amazing for connecting and letting off stress. But sometimes, the inability to control this impulse can be socially damaging and taboo. For example, you wouldn’t want to laugh out loud at someone who makes a Freudian slip in a meeting.
- Impulse to Avoid or Escape: When faced with uncomfortable or threatening situations, people often have the impulse to avoid or escape. This is, simply, a part of the pleasure principle: we avoid pain. For example, I am a person who feels social anxiety, so I tend to feel the urge to leave a crowded party as soon as too many people turn up. For me, it’s my “fight or flight” impulse response, which oftentimes I need to resist.
- Impulse to Correct Others: We may feel the need to correct other people when they’re wrong. For example, you might see people making spelling mistakes online and you feel that urge to respond telling them “it’s they’re not their!” Most of us restrain this impulse. But even though this impulse often comes from a desire for accuracy and truth, it’s essential to balance it with respect and consideration for others’ feelings.
- Impulse to Compete: This impulse arises when individuals are in situations that provoke their competitive instincts. If a colleague is praised for their work, someone might feel an impulse to outperform them in the next project. The impulse to compete can fuel motivation and performance but can also lead to stress if not managed well.
- Impulse to Hoard: Hoarding is an impulse to collect or save items excessively, even those of no value or use. This impulse might manifest when a person feels the need to buy and store extra items, often due to fear of future scarcity. Although it provides temporary comfort, this impulse can lead to clutter and financial issues.
- Impulse to Compare: The urge to compare oneself to others is a common impulse, often triggered by social media or peer interactions. For example, someone might see a friend’s vacation photos and feel an impulse to compare their own lifestyle with theirs. While this impulse can sometimes motivate improvement, it often leads to feelings of inadequacy or dissatisfaction. Balancing this impulse with self-acceptance and individuality is crucial.
Impulse Control: Benefits and Strategies
Impulse control refers to our ability to resist or delay an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform a particular action.
This cognitive function forms an integral part of our daily life, impacting our decision-making process, behavior, and overall life management.
A well-developed impulse control allows us to live in harmony with our social, professional, and personal environments (Casey, 2015).
Benefits of Impulse Control
Impulse control contributes to multiple facets of our lives, from personal relationships to professional success.
One clear benefit is the enhancement of interpersonal relationships.
By controlling impulsive responses, individuals can maintain effective and respectful communication, reducing the potential for conflicts (DeWall, Baumeister, Stillman, & Gailliot, 2007).
Another significant advantage lies in academic and professional environments.
Research has found a correlation between impulse control and academic achievement, with students who demonstrate higher impulse control often performing better acadically (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).
Similarly, in the workplace, employees with better impulse control tend to perform more effectively and are often seen as more reliable (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004).
Healthwise, impulse control is a crucial factor in mitigating unhealthy habits such as overeating, substance abuse, and smoking (Kreek, Nielsen, Butelman, & LaForge, 2005).
Therefore, effective impulse control can contribute significantly to an individual’s overall well-being.
Strategies for Enhancing Impulse Control
Understanding the benefits of impulse control, one may wonder about the strategies to enhance this cognitive function. Here are a few evidence-based strategies:
- Mindfulness and Meditation: Regular mindfulness and meditation practices can help individuals become more aware of their impulses, understand them, and eventually control them. Studies suggest that mindfulness training can improve one’s impulse control by enhancing their attention regulation (Tang, Yang, Leve, & Harold, 2012).
- Cognitive Behavioral Techniques: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques like cognitive restructuring and behavioral activation can assist individuals in managing their impulses effectively (Hofmann, Asnaani, Vonk, Sawyer, & Fang, 2012).
- Physical Activity: Regular exercise has been linked to better impulse control, likely due to its positive impact on brain health and function (Verburgh, Königs, Scherder, & Oosterlaan, 2014).
- Adequate Sleep: Research has found a strong association between sleep deprivation and decreased impulse control (Schneider & Anderson, 2019). Therefore, ensuring adequate and quality sleep can be a crucial factor in managing impulsivity.
Impulse control forms an essential part of our cognitive and behavioral repertoire. The myriad benefits it offers make the pursuit of enhanced impulse control worthwhile. By employing strategies like mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral techniques, regular physical activity, and adequate sleep, we can gradually improve our impulse control, paving the way for better decision-making and healthier life choices.
Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Understanding self-regulation: An introduction. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 1–12). Guilford Press.
Casey, B. J. (2015). Beyond simple models of self-control to circuit-based accounts of adolescent behavior. Annual review of psychology, 66, 295-319.
DeWall, C. N., Baumeister, R. F., Stillman, T. F., & Gailliot, M. T. (2007). Violence restrained
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]