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In Defence of Impulsivity

Written by Dr Rebecca Brown

It has become commonplace to identify a lack of impulse control as a major cause of poor health. A popular theory within behavioural science tells us that our behaviour is regulated via two systems: the fast, impulsive system 1 (the ‘impulsive’ or ‘automatic’ system) and the slower, deliberative system 2 (the ‘reflective’ system). Much of our behaviour is routine and repeated in similar ways in similar contexts: making coffee in the morning, travelling to work, checking our email. Such behaviours develop into habits, and we are able to successfully perform them with minimal conscious input and cognitive effort. This is because they come under the control of our impulsive system.

Habits have become a focus of health promoters. It seems that many of these routine, repeated behaviours actually have a significant impact on our health over a lifetime: what we eat and drink and how active we are can affect our risk of developing chronic diseases like type II diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and cancer. Despite considerable efforts to educate people as to the risks of eating too much, exercising to little, smoking and drinking, many people continue to engage in such unhealthy habits. One reason for this, it is proposed, is people’s limited ability to exert conscious (reflective) control over their habitual (impulsive) behaviour.

Given this, one might think that it would be preferable if people were generally able to exhibit more reflective control; that behaviour was less frequently determined by impulsive processes and more frequently determined by reflective deliberation. Perhaps this could form part of the basis for advising people to be more ‘mindful’ in their everyday activities, such as eating, and regimes for training one’s willpower ‘muscle’ to ensure confident conscious control over one’s behaviour.

Whether or not this is an idea taken seriously by anyone involved in health promotion, there may be a tendency to talk about reflective behaviour as superior – including more expressive of autonomy or more consistent with agent identity – to impulsively determined behaviour.  I think, however, we should be cautious about assuming that more reflective control is always a good thing. In fact, it is not clear whether increased reflective control in general would be a good thing. There are (at least) three reasons for thinking this, relating to: 1. demandingness of reflective processes; 2. value of individuality and identity; 3. promotion of health and well-being. I will outline why I think these matter below.

1. The impulsive system is useful. One consequence of Kahneman and Tversky’s ‘heuristics and biases’ project of work in psychology has been to collate all of the ways in which automatic processes seem to make systematic errors which can cause people to act in ways that appear irrational (or not fully rational) and even harm their interests. The Wikipedia entry for cognitive biases currently lists over 180 distinct biases. This has perhaps led to an exaggerated focus on when heuristics and the operation of impulsive control has disadvantageous consequences, neglecting the vast majority of the time when we rely upon such automatic processes to regulate our behaviour in highly adaptive ways (the psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has been a vocal critic of heuristics and biases research for this reason).  If we were to jettison impulsive behavioural control (and it is unclear what this would even look like), or seek to exert high levels of reflective control across all or even many of our behaviours, then the smallest, simplest task would take forever, multitasking would become almost impossible, and we would spend all our time in a state of cognitive exhaustion. The only way to imagine such a degree of reflective control would be via some form of neuroenhancement that dramatically increases the cognitive capacities of humans.

2. In the opening lines of her seminal paper, ‘Moral Saints,’ Susan Wolf famously asserts “I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care the most are among them.” Wolf goes on to argue that the life of a moral saint would be so devoid of nonmoral values, motivations and activities that it would render both the moral saint and those she relates to severely lacking in some of the key features of a rich human life. Wolf asserts that “a person may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral.” The loss Wolf identities in the lives of moral saints would, I think, also arise in a world of extreme reflectiveness. Consider this article in the Business Insider, describing one woman’s attempt to achieve all her goals for a week. These goals included exercising for at least 30 minutes on at least five days; preparing all but one meal at home; sticking to a strict ‘fun’ budget; waking up at 6.30 am and getting seven hours of sleep a night; and avoiding sweets and alcohol. Somewhat surprisingly, this woman mostly managed to meet all of her goals, attending wholesome morning yoga sessions and worrying about whether or not she should have eaten an apple rather than a pretzel. Less surprisingly, her diary is extremely boring to read, and sounds equally boring to have lived through. The truth may be that, given such emphasis on the need to adopt healthy lifestyles, many people’s typical reflective goals may comprise boringly virtuous routines. No hangovers, but few stories to tell.

3. Impulsive behaviour can be blamed for a number of health problems: smoking, overeating, under-exercising and high alcohol consumption may result from impulsive behaviours directed towards immediate rewards but blind to longer term harms. We should consider, however, what might happen to health and well-being were people significantly more able to follow all of their reflective preferences regarding their health. A greater capacity to act in accordance with reflective systems needn’t be accompanied with a greater capacity to judge what is in one’s interests. Plenty of people form intentions to adopt fad diets; to lose two stone in two weeks; to run ten miles a day. There are plenty of examples, both historical and contemporary, of healthcare and treatments (endorsed – and provided – by medical professionals) which are ineffective and even harmful to the recipient (think of blood-letting, purging, frontal lobotomies). Plenty of ‘common sense’ public health advice may not improve health (dietary advice is perhaps the main culprit, since it is notoriously hard to identify robust causal effects of diet when there are so many confounds). This results in over treatment and harmful medical practices. Maligned impulsive systems alert us to thirst, fatigue or hunger, and attending to those signals may be quite good at maintaining our health and well-being.

Clearly, there are ways in which impulsive behaviour can have damaging effects on individuals. Addictions may be the sharpest example here, where impulsivity becomes overpowering and little or no reflective control is able to intervene in people’s self-sabotaging behaviours. Without wishing to glamourise the more destructive effects of impulsive behaviour, it seems a mistake to focus excessively on these harmful consequences, and neglect the ways in which impulsive system control is useful (essential), enriching, and perhaps even protects us from ourselves.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. I am in total agreement. The idea of increasing something as core to our humanity as our impulse control raises the spectre of the grandfather’s axe paradox. How much can we improve our impulse control before we cease to be or feel human? How much of our humanity is tied up in moments of excess and folly? And what function does impulsiveness have? It is easy to dismiss it without a second thought but if you look at situations of imperfect information that require quick decision making, impulse is what gives us the risk takers who out on a limb and win big, empowering humanity with new achievements and discoveries. I dread to think how a stock market devoid of impulsiveness would operate. Impulsiveness and risk-taking can have big rewards or big costs but it seems in this day and age we only focus on the negative and conveniently forget we would be giving up the positives as well. And without the highs and lows of impulsiveness and its good and bad outcomes, would we still be men or just machines going about calculated lives, living but not alive?

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