Which are you: Spontaneous or Impulsive?
A recent New York Times article titled, "Living on Impulse" describes the difference between people who are merely spontaneous or adventurous, and those whose impulsivity gets them into trouble.
Here's the difference:
Spontaneous people are generally flexible and like to do things on the spur of the moment. These are the folks who change their weekend plans at the last minute; who suddenly decide one day to cut their long hair short; or who go to the store intending to buy bread and milk, and come out with a cart full of items.
Spontaneous actions such as these can make life interesting. Although the consequences may sometimes be unexpected, they are not hurtful or destructive.
On the other hand, impulsive people are those who take spontaneity to the extreme. They are ruled by their inner brats. They act without thinking and buy stuff they can't afford. They get into arguments and physical fights, and do other things that they later regret.
Impulsive people have more trouble overcoming addictions. They have more problems focusing their attention. They are more likely to get into trouble, and have more problems in relationships.
Impulsive people take risks. But so do those who are merely spontaneous, adventurous or curious. The difference between the two groups, according to research psychologist Janine Flory, is that impulsive people are not good at "applying the brakes." Once they start, it's hard to stop.
Scientists have linked impulsivity with the prefrontal cortex of the brain. When it's working well, this brain area helps with judgment, planning and inhibiting unacceptable behavior.
But when it's not working well, there is lack of judgment, lack of planning and lack of inhibition. Does this sound like a teenager that you know? That's probably because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until well past adolescence.
Many teens are wild and reckless, but they usually settle down in their 20s, when the prefrontal cortex is finally hooked up properly. However, some people never settle down. Their impulsive behavior continues throughout their lives.
You might be thinking: "So if I have a strong inner brat, it's a brain problem. It's not my fault, and there's nothing I can do about it, right?"
As much as you think that you have little control over your behavior, consider this scenario: Let's say you always drive too fast, way over the speed limit. "It's my nature," you might say. Then let's assume you have a serious car accident. After you recover, you are less likely to speed.
What has changed? Not your brain – it's the same one that you blamed for your fast driving before. But now you are more aware. You put more effort into being careful. Maybe cautiousness does not come as easy for you as it does for other people. But it is possible.
In the same way, regardless of how impulsive you are, you can learn to control your behavior. Here are some tips:
1. Count to 10. No – better yet, count to 100. That will give you time to calm yourself down enough to think more logically. Do you really need that drink, or that donut, or that expensive bracelet?
2. Distract yourself with something to do for 15 minutes – preferably something that leaves you physically tired. This will help drain the tension from your mind and your body, and in turn calm the impulsive urge.
3. Imagine the consequences of your words or actions. Could you live with these potential consequences for the rest of your life? Before you answer, consider that there will probably be consequences that you didn't anticipate.
4. Sleep on it. Have a personal rule to wait 24 hours before making a major decision such as quitting your job, getting married, getting divorced, buying a house or investing money.
Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.