Impulsivity: First Steps

One of my themes for this year is going to be impulsivity, I think. You’re probably wondering how I reached that decision. Well, the truth is, I didn’t give it much thought. Just went for it. Ha ha ha very good one. In fact the idea arose in conversations with my psychiatrist colleague Neil Hunt, who has been the inspiration for a couple of other posts, here and here.
      Impulsivity seems to be a hottish topic in psychology. Cognitive scientists are exploring its biological mechanisms, the brain regions and neurotransmitters involved. Psychiatrists are dealing with it as a symptom in several major mental disorders, and as an emerging category in itself. The 2013 edition (the fifth) of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has numerous new designations for impulse control disorders. So, yes, it’s a hottish topic.
      It strikes me that it’s something that literature depicts and explores. From my reading of Daniel Kahneman and others (Thinking Fast and Slow, etc.), and from observing people in the world (it’s hard to avoid doing that), I get that it’s hard to tell how impulsive people are. Even in ourselves, what seems like a slow and deliberated decision may have been made all too quickly. Watching others, it is often impossible to know.
      Writers can offer us what seems like some sort of grip on fictional minds: we can be told, or shown, how impulsive a given action was, and we can assess whether this seems realistic or not, typical or not. Sometimes it’s not so clear: in a play, for example, we see something that looks like deliberation, but we cannot necessarily infer that the time taken has truly got past an immediate impulse. And what seems hasty might be well brewed. Some of the most interesting examples in Shakespeare make an issue of this, and in future posts I am bound to come back to them.
      In one of the lectures I gave to Cambridge students last summer, I offered a few examples of fast and slow thinking. It’s the first lecture linked to here.


A number of different tests are used to assess impulsivity. One of them is the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale: you can find an example of the test questions here. I’m afraid I derived a rather immature sort of pleasure from the advice given to those taking it: ‘Read each statement and put an X on the appropriate circle on the right side of this page. Do not spend too much time on any statement’. I can’t really stop myself thinking… hang on, you can’t tell people to be impulsive in a test about impulsivity! But I dare say that’s not the point.
      I imagine my favourite Shakespearean characters contemplating the test. King Lear himself, for example.

26. I often have extraneous thoughts when thinking – yes.
6. I have ‘racing’ thoughts – yes, remarkably so at times.
11. I ‘squirm’ at plays or lectures – well he would if he heard what I say about him.

Here’s some of that ‘racing’ in action. Shakespeare has produced a character who’d have to give himself some high scores:

Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to’t? But I will punish home:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all, –
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

1 thought on “Impulsivity: First Steps

  1. Florence

    This seems to be connected to intuition (decision-making?) which is also a hottish subject, but still puzzles. It’s a mixture of experience and knowledge? I cannot remember where but I once read that, when faced with a problem, the mind unconsciously runs through all sorts of crazy solutions, and it is the emotions which transfer likely solutions up into consciousness. Like a switch, or Facebook ‘like’ button, and we become aware. Experience and knowledge can increase the number of solutions, so intuition is something trainable, or something to refine at least. Todd Kashdan writes about intuitive decisions in The Upside of Your Dark Side (it’s on why “bad” emotions like anger or sadness are useful), that they produce higher levels of satisfaction than something we mull over forever. Looking forward to more on this! I have an intuition the next post might figure the rose-picking scene in Henry VI…


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