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We need to give our impulses more credit

We often look at our impulses as a bother. Things to be overcome and controlled, but what if we are looking at them the wrong way?

Are we being too rational?

We all know a person who is unable to control their impulses. The friend who always buys the one thing they like but don't need, the one who drinks just a little too much, the one who can't finish their work because they need to check twitter for a second; all of them attract a little bit of our disapproval.

This is often justified, as impulsivity is positively correlated with all kinds of substance abuse. Impulse control disorders are recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as being real and problematic. Those disorders also correlate with various other mental and physical health problems.

Experimental data also shows that impulsivity can lead to negative life outcomes. Famously, the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment found that preschoolers who were better able to delay gratification went on the have higher SAT scores, education levels, and better emotional coping ability than their peers who gave in to impulse right away.

However, there are a few things to be said in favor of impulses.

In her article, Dr. Rebecca Brown articulates why we might want to give impulses a little more credit. While she acknowledges that our brain's automatic responses can be irrational, and isn't arguing that we should jettison rational thought for following our every whim, she does remind us that habits needn't be harmful and that just because our subconscious is running things isn't proof things are going badly.

She firstly reminds us that our impulses, even when they tend to irrational biases, can be useful and even vital to our ability to function. Imagine, for example, if every time you took a step you had to focus a tremendous cognitive effort on making your legs move in just the right way for smooth movement; in the same way that you focus on it when walking on an icy path. Would walking not be much harder? How much walking would you be able to do in a day without growing sick of it? Thank heavens that most of the time our subconscious worries about the exact mechanism of walking! It is our habits and impulses that allow us to get through the day without suffering mental exhaustion.


Think you could multitask if some of the simpler actions were not managed by your subconscious? Think again.

Our impulses also help us fully experience life around us. She refers to the story of a woman who set herself a simple list of goals for a week and was bound to follow them. The goals were simple, exercise more, get the right amount of sleep, and more goals of the kind we would all do better to aim for. She was able to achieve most of them rather easily. However, her diary is so dull it could cure insomnia. The utter rejection of impulse, even non-negative ones, suggests that her week was spent doing exactly what she should do and not much else. While this may be good for us, it is also not quite what most of us think of when we imagine the kind of life we would want to live.

Is Dr. Brown alone in her defense of our better impulses?

Dr. Brown has a friend in Aristotle of all people, who saw the ideal human as a rational creature. Aristotle understood the power of impulse, and that it makes habits notoriously hard to break. His ethical theories take this into account and try to have the virtuous person change not only their actions but their habits. When even your impulses have become virtuous, how can you not be so?

While we are right to critique the person who is unable to control their impulses, we may have reason to criticize the person who never listens to their impulses at all as well.  To live without our impulses would be to hardly live at all. In many cases, such as executing a simple movement, we really might not be able to get by without our impulses going about their often thankless jobs.  


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