A curious take on Impulse and Self Control


Icarian Impulse

Have you ever heard about the term Icarian Impulse? It refers to a hasty action that ultimately brings about drastic consequences. Perhaps, you found the definition too vague. Let me elaborate a bit further.

Icarus was the son of the famous builder Daedalus in Greek mythology. Both once angered King Minos and were consequently held captive in Crete. Utilizing his skills Daedalus cunningly planned an escape by tailoring wings made up of feathers and bee wax, both for himself and his son.

After making those wings, Daedalus warned his son Icarus not to fly too close to the Sun for an obvious reason- the wax would melt by the scorching heat, and he would fall to his death. 

But young Icarus was so taken away by the excitement of flying for the first time, that he ignored his father’s warning. At last, the inevitable nemesis arrived; the wax melted down. Icarus drowned to his death in mid-sea.

No one but Icarus himself was responsible for his untimely death. After all, it was his impulsion that led to his downfall. But Icarus was not the only impulsive person who walked on planet Earth! 


Impulsiveness is an inherent characteristic of human behavior. It is only the degree that varies from person to person. Take for example, shopping despite a tight budget at the end of the month; indulging in ice cream or a cheesy pizza during diet; binge-watching YouTube and playing video games during work hours- all of these are examples of impulsive behaviors. 

Of late, impulsivity has interested a wide range of researchers ranging from psychologists to economists. But let us first understand the meaning of ‘Impulsivity’.

Impulsivity is an assembly of characteristics like acting without thinking, quick decision making, thinking about the present rather than the future, and finding it hard to concentrate[1]. Impulsive people show an inability to tolerate long delays for receiving a reward. In other words, they rely on instant gratification over accomplishing a long-term goal. Some scientists argue that it may not be an inability as such, but a preferential bias towards seeking immediate results[2]

Classification of impulsive behavior

Technically, impulsive behavior can be classified into two broad sections:

  • Functional impulsivity: the tendency to engage in rapid and error-prone information processing when such a strategy is optimal
  • Dysfunctional impulsivity: the tendency to adopt such a strategy because of an inability to use a slower and more methodical approach

Impulsivity is measured either by a self-reported technique or through behavioral studies. In the former case, the subjects are asked to fill out a questionnaire where responses are framed to a scale ranging from an extreme likeness or disagreement. Eysenck Impulsivity Questionnaire, Impulsivity Inventory, and Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-11) are self-reported measures. Among them, BIS-11 is the most popular one and has been widely used since 1959. For behavioral studies, researchers often use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to gauge impulsivity[3].

The 3 Theories of Self Control

Impulsive behavior occurs when self-control fails. Oscar Wilde once said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” Indeed, people often mention that they feel helpless in front of their temptations and eventually succumb to them[1,4]

Self-control can be defined as the capacity to alter or override dominant response tendencies and regulate behavior, thoughts, and emotions[5]. But what does a person actually control when one exercises self-control? 

There are three kinds of theories of actuating self-control to date. The first one involves willpower. Here, the individual exerts some mental energy to overcome an impulse. The second kind of theory considers self-control as a software program that is installable and is used to control a person’s behavior. The third kind of theory describes self-control as a skill[6]

Most popular theory- Willpower

Out of the three, the first model is the most popular one. It has been observed that people exhibit the poorest self-control once they have carried out an act that involves willpower. You can compare the situation by thinking that a person feels exhausted and needs rest after a heavy workout due to poor glucose content in the blood. This state of reduced self-control is called ego depletion[7]. It takes a while to regain resources for self-control, preferably after a nap. Following those lines of thought, it is not surprising to realize that self-control may vary throughout the day. Provided with sufficient rest and sleep the previous night, self-control is at its peak in the morning and gradually decreases throughout the day. Hence self-control failure is less frequent in the morning compared to the night.

The idea of ego depletion theory is more convincing as one thinks about how intelligent human beings are at finding shortcuts. As conscious self-control and decision maintenance are costly, people try to minimize them. People, therefore, arrange routines and regular habits to avoid ego depletion. 

Emotional Stress As A Reason For Self Control Breakdown

It is also reported in the literature that emotional distress brings about a breakdown of self-control[8]. No wonder why people drink and overeat after a heartbreak! Alcoholism disrupts self-monitoring tendencies. On the other hand, when people lose track of their behavior, they lose self-control. An experiment was once conducted among dieters and non-dieters to study the role of self-monitoring in self-control. Before the test, both parties were asked to eat food. It was found that dieters paradoxically ate more than non-dieters when manipulated. Upon investigation, researchers learnt that the dieters thought that their routines were already ruined for the day. Thus, they got involved in indulging in snacks instead of restraining from extra calorie intake[9]


Does self-control vary with age? To answer this question Prof. Steinberg theorized the “Dual systems model of neurobiological development” around 2008[10]. It talks about two different interplaying neurobiological systems that maintain a balance between risk-seeking behavior and controlling it[16]. The socio-emotional network leads to risk-seeking behavior. The cognitive control network monitors or inhibits impulsive decision-making[11]. These two systems develop at unequal rates and involve different parts of the brain. 

The rapid development of the socio-emotional network is suspected to be correlated with the increasing rate of dopamine secretion during puberty. That might explain why teenagers are prone to more rebel-like behavior. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain is involved in most of the the higher-order thinking processes, like control of moral behavior and emotional inhibition. Now, a dopamine surge in the body leads to a rapid development of the PFC that facilitates neural transmission across different parts of the brain. Thus PFC plays an inhibitory role in impulsive actions. Dual system models predict that adolescence is the high period of impulsivity and gradually wears out with time by 25 years of age[11].

Advantages of having stronger self-control

There are many fold advantages of having a stronghold on self-control. People with high levels of self-control enjoy better self-esteem, interpersonal relationships and show fewer emotional problems like anxiety, anger, depression. Students with higher self-control tend to have better grades than their counterparts. People who exercise self-control are often found to be more trustworthy and competent in general[12]. However, it is often difficult to attribute causation through correlation. A better understanding of the human brain might provide further insights into the actual low-level mechanisms that guide the emergent behavioral characteristics related to impulsivity.  

But what about those who fail in it? 

Impulsivity directly correlates to crimes. In 1990 Gottfredson and Hirsh promulgated their Generalized Theory of Crime. They mentioned that criminal behavior is an outcome of poor self-control. Self-control is attained through parental attachment, supervision, and punishment[13]

Correlation with Gender

Gottfredson and Hirsch also thought that the theory of crime was gender-neutral. But researchers find that impulsive behavior is generally more seen in males than females for both young and old[14].

Various theoretical models attempt to explain the sex gap in impulsivity. Power control theory by Hagan and Simpson argues that boys are encouraged and allowed to take risks and experience less parental monitoring than girls[15]. This ultimately leads to the gender gap in delinquency via preference for risk. It is also believed that boys may see impulsivity as part of their burgeoning masculine identity. Girls see impulsivity as a precursor to the cause of potential victimization. 

Are boys more impulsive than girls?

Dr. Constance L. Chapple of University of Cincinnati and Dr. Katherine A. Johnson of University of Nebraska, Lincoln showed that the paths between discipline-impulsivity and maternal attachment-impulsivity differed significantly for boys and girls. The effects were more pronounced for boys than girls. Also, the covariances between motor skills and attachment, reading ability and monitoring, poverty, and monitoring differed significantly between boys and girls. Each covariance was higher for boys[16]. These results indicate that parenting may be more crucial for boys than girls in the prediction of impulsivity.

Restraint bias and empathy gap

For ages, impulsivity has been considered as a failure of self-control which in turn is a moral failure. But we now know that a delicate balance comes into play at monitoring self-control. Self-control is heavily influenced by environment and neurological functioning. Psychologists have come forward with terms called restraint bias[17] and empathy gap[18] in recent years. It says that people have often underestimated the power of impulse. Inflated self-control beliefs can lead people to overexpose themselves to temptation, thereby promoting impulsive behavior.

Loewenstein (1996) termed it a ‘‘cold-to-hot empathy gap[17]. He said that the tendency for people in a cold state (i.e., not experiencing hunger, anger, sexual arousal, and so on) to underestimate the influence a hot, impulsive state will have on their preferences and behavior. Loewenstein argued that the underestimation of visceral impulse is due to constrained memory for a visceral experience. That is, although people can recall the circumstances that led to an impulsive state (e.g., ‘‘I was hungry because I hadn’t eaten all day’’) and can recall the relative strength of an impulsive state (e.g., ‘‘that was the hungriest I have ever been’’), they cannot bring forth the sensation of the impulsive state. 


Impulsivity is not shallow as it appears after all. We need to stop considering impulsive behavior as a social stigma and rather realize that for some people it is a disorder of the brain. Needless to say, the study on impulse has and will have a profound impact on judicial affairs. For now, all we can do is to be aware and considerate. For further information you can consult to www.impulsivity.org

Author’s Bio:

Shrestha Chowdhury is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Chemical Sciences at IISER KOLKATA. She loves reading books and has recently taken a great interest in penning down various factual write-ups. She likes participating in projects that help her to grow and network with like-minded people. This is her first blog on TQR’s platform. The author heartily acknowledges insightful suggestions and edits from Dr. Debanuj Chatterjee during preparation of the draft.


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