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An automatic impulse is a behavior or reaction that occurs almost instantaneously and without significant thought or reflection. An example would be a person’s eyes clenching shut when an object moves toward him or her quickly; the body acts on impulse to protect itself, instead of waiting for the person to consciously realize the danger and decide to avoid it. A related but separate concept is that of automatic cognition, which arises in the context of psychology and is defined as an involuntary thought pattern triggered by a specific circumstance.
Within an economic context, a common marketing strategy is to try to get consumers to make purchases on automatic impulse, without thinking critically about the product, its features, or its cost. To accomplish this, advertising often seeks to make the product attractive on an emotional level rather than relying on the product’s utilitarian features. For instance, colognes and perfumes are marketed using physically attractive male and female models, with an understanding that consumers will be drawn to the models, associate the product with the attractive model, and then (without further analysis) purchase the product in an effort to identify themselves with the model.
Just as an automatic impulse is one that occurs without higher-order thought, its opposite is the exercise of self-control. Self-control requires a person to pause and evaluate the costs and benefits associated with a particular course of action, deferring selection until the best course can be identified. Automatic impulses are akin to the most basic, default behaviors, those that will be exhibited unless the faculty of self-control intervenes first and chooses a different direction.
Self-control can be thought of as an internal resource that is present within all human beings, albeit in amounts that are finite and different for each person. It has been compared with muscle tissue because, while not an unlimited resource, it is one that can be increased: The more one uses it, the stronger and more effective it becomes at resisting automatic impulse.
Because automatic impulses are so strong and instinctive, it can be very difficult to resist them, even in a neutral environment where external forces are not encouraging us to follow our impulses. A number of psychological disorders are actually manifestations of a person’s struggle with impulse control. For example, eating disorders can be traced back to the natural human impulse to consume calories in order to sustain life. For millions of years of evolution, the more calories an organism could consume, the greater were its chances of surviving rather than starving to death. This has resulted in a very strong impulse to eat, making it difficult to resist hunger. When this evolutionary quality is combined with an environment where high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, sweets, soft drinks, and so on, are readily available, the unsurprising result is an epidemic of obesity.
Another impulse disorder that has become so common as to be almost unremarkable is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While the question of what causes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is still subject to debate, it is well understood that those who suffer from attention disorders have at their core an inability to use self-control to regulate their mental focus; their attention flits from one topic or stimulus to another, leaving them unable to concentrate on one object or idea for an extended period.
Impulse buying is a variation of automatic impulses that some would consider a disorder, while others—those selling the products being purchased—would instead see it as a behavior to be encouraged. Impulse buying is a form of automatic impulse that affects economic decisions; it involves making a purchase that had not previously been planned or that had even been consciously ruled out. The classic example is of a parent and child visiting the grocery store together; before entering, the parent reminds the child that no candy will be purchased, but as it happens, the checkout lane (all the checkout lanes, in fact) is lined with every conceivable type of candy. The child is overcome by the desire for sweets, and the parent gives in.
Researchers at Stanford explored the interaction of automatic impulses and self-control in the now famous marshmallow experiment, which has much in common with the example above. The study offered children a choice between receiving one marshmallow to eat immediately and the promise of receiving two marshmallows if the child could wait for a brief period (usually about 15 minutes). Not surprisingly, some children opted for the immediate reward, following their impulse, while others were able to delay gratification through the exercise of self-control. What was surprising, however, were the long-term benefits of delayed gratification, which follow-up studies were able to document. The children who resisted the impulse to take the immediate reward tended to be more successful in many aspects of their lives than the kids who gave in to their impulse. The “two marshmallow” kids tended to have higher test scores and a better overall school performance and were less likely to be obese than the “one marshmallow” group.
This study highlights an important cultural schism regarding impulsive behaviors. On the one hand, most people seem to recognize that it is preferable to have self-control rather than to give in to automatic impulse, because self-control tends to keep people out of trouble by giving them additional time to think about their choices and discern what really is worthwhile from what merely seems to be worthwhile. On the other hand, in a market economy that rises and falls with the fortunes of commerce, there are strong incentives from manufacturers and advertisers for people to give in to their impulses, because in most cases, doing so will generate revenue for a business, whether that business involves food preparation, toy manufacturing, technological gadgets, or any of the multitude of commodities people indulge in. Ultimately, what is required is a balance between self-control and impulsive behavior. It would be impractical to strive to never give in to an impulse; the trick is in knowing when to release control and for how long.
- Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.
- Lewis, David. Impulse: Why We Do What We Do Without Knowing Why We Do It. London: RH Books, 2013.
- Schwartz, Gary. The Impulse Economy: Understanding Mobile Shoppers and What Makes Them New York: Atria Books, 2011.