Have you ever wondered why you sometimes make impulsive decisions? Those moments in which you act without thinking twice only to later find that the consequences are not as expected. You are not the only one. We all make impulsive decisions from time to time, especially when emotions take over and “turn off” the more rational part of our brain.
However, acting on impulse can end up taking a heavy toll on you, especially since some of those choices can change your life forever. Understanding the reasons for that impulsiveness will help you take control of your life, avoid mistakes, and save you many regrets.
A parenthesis: authenticity is not the same as impulsiveness
Many people confuse authenticity with impulsiveness. They believe that saying the first thing that comes to mind or deciding without thinking is being authentic. Nothing is further from reality. Although authenticity and impulsiveness arise from a very deep place within you, they have different characteristics that lead to very different results.
Being authentic means being true to yourself, showing who you really are and what you value through your actions and words. It is a deliberate act of congruence through which you tune in to your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Authenticity is an internal compass that guides you and allows you to connect with others honestly.
Instead, being impulsive means acting without reflection, giving in to momentary impulses without assessing the long-term consequences of actions. While authenticity is a conscious choice, impulsiveness is governed by emotion and immediate desire. In fact, authenticity implies being consistent with your values and goals in life, but in many cases impulsiveness pushes you to make decisions that do not reflect who you really are, especially when you get carried away by others or circumstances.
Therefore, authenticity is a path of self-knowledge and self-expression while impulsiveness is a quick and visceral reaction. Obviously, both concepts coexist, but it is essential to understand that while authenticity leads to harmony by helping to balance spontaneity and reflection, impulsive decisions tend to lead down an uncertain path that often takes you away from yourself.
Why do we make impulsive decisions?
Impulsive decisions tend to take place in the most emotional part of our brain, mainly in the amygdala. This small area of the brain acts as a kind of “fight or flight” mode switch. When you’re faced with stressful situations, the amygdala kicks in and takes over before the prefrontal lobes – which is where much of your rationality and self-control is concentrated – can step in to weigh up what’s going on.
In practice, the amygdala triggers an emotional hijacking, so before you have a chance to think, whoosh! You make that impulsive decision without being fully aware of what just happened. That emotional hijacking doesn’t just happen when we feel emotionally overwhelmed, frustrated, or very angry.
Instant positive emotions can also generate a state of emotional hijacking. Euphoria, for example, can push you to make impulsive decisions that you later regret. In fact, it is one of the emotions that is at the base of impulse purchases. The desire to amplify positive emotions can also push you to engage in extreme experiences.
When it comes to impulsive decisions, emotions lose their valence as both positive and negative emotions can lead you down paths you would not have rationally chosen.
Another reason that can push you to act on impulse is wanting quick results. The immediacy of today’s society has rewarded this type of behavior, so that more and more people want to feel good here and now without thinking about the long-term consequences. In some cases, the impulsive decision may be an attempt to avoid uncomfortable emotions, such as stress or sadness, so that at that precise moment it seems like the perfect solution, such as when you take refuge in food to feel better.
Pressure from the others can also lead you to make impulsive decisions. If you are a person who finds it difficult to say “no”, it is likely that in social situations you make more impulsive decisions, letting yourself be carried away by feelings such as shame or grief. When the world puts pressure on us, it takes a lot of strength and security to go against the current. In such cases, most people give in, simply because it’s the easy way out. However, it is not always the most convenient.
3 techniques to stop acting impulsively
The good news is that you can control that impulsiveness. When you recognize what triggers impulsive decisions, you can stay tuned to stop yourself before you reach the point of no return.
1. Take a deep breath
When you feel like you’re about to act impulsively, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and count to ten. Yes, I know, it sounds a cliché, but you will be surprised how effective this technique is in giving you that little window of time you need to regain control and think before you act. In fact, science has proven that deep, slow breathing can calm excitability at the nervous level and generate the calm necessary to make better decisions. Sometimes just a few seconds of pause can make the difference between an impulsive decision and a thoughtful action. Therefore, before acting, take a deep breath and count to ten.
2. Talk to yourself
Another very simple exercise to stop impulsive decisions is to talk to yourself. Ok, it sounds a bit weird, but it’s a very powerful technique. Before making a decision, speak to yourself out loud and ask yourself: Do I really need it? What will be the consequences of this decision? Do I really want to do this now? Listening to yourself out loud will allow you to see things from a different perspective. You will be able to assume the necessary psychological distance and you will return control to the more rational part of your brain so that you can weigh your options more objectively. In fact, psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that among the benefits of speaking alone is that the brain works more efficiently, which means that you can expand your perception and think more clearly.
3. Use a reflection amulet
Another very easy psychological technique to apply to avoid acting on impulse is to use a “reflection amulet”. Actually, it can be a key chain, a bracelet or even a small stone that you like because what is really important is that you establish an emotional anchoring that generates calm and serenity. Every time you feel like impulsiveness is about to win the battle, touch that amulet and take it as a sign that you need to stop and think twice. Sometimes a little physical reminder can make the difference between acting impulsively and making a more conscious decision.
Finally, remember that emotions are not your enemy. Sometimes they can give you very important clues on the path to follow, but it is convenient that you validate them with reason. Being aware of your impulses does not mean removing spontaneity from your life, but rather making sure that your decisions lead you in the right direction!
Lupyan, G. & Swingley, D. (2011) Self-directed speech affects visual search performance. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology; 65(6): 1068-1085.
De Couck, M. et. Al. (2019) How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. Int J Psychophysiol; 139: 1-9.