Automatic Impulse Essay

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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.

Theoretical Background

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.

Impulse  Disorders

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.


  1. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.
  2. Lewis, David. Impulse: Why We Do What  We Do Without Knowing Why  We Do It. London:  RH Books, 2013.
  3. Schwartz, Gary. The Impulse Economy: Understanding Mobile Shoppers and What  Makes Them  New York: Atria Books, 2011.

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