Photo by Dave Dugdale; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Dave Dugdale; Wikimedia Commons

“Control” is a word that gets a bad rap. No one wants to be accused of being a control freak or engaging in controlling behavior.

At the same time, self-control is one type of control that we probably wish to have in abundant supply, because the lack thereof could be devastating to our finances.

This post begins a four-part series aimed at understanding impulse control: (1) the unthinking side, (2) the thinking side, (3) why impulses take over our behavior, and (4) strategies for strengthening self-control in the service of better money management.

Let’s start with the unthinking side of things. Science has uncovered the fact that there are two processing systems at work in the mind as we move through the day: controlled processes and automatic processes. Controlled processes are the things that we think about consciously using language—we’ll get to that in part two. Automatic processes happen without the need for conscious attention or control. In other words, they are the “unthinking” things that happen underneath the radar of our consciousness, such as our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions.

The automatic system runs the side of ourselves that you might call the “impulsive self.” Consider what would happen if you faced a tempting situation and weren’t allowed to think it through. Imagine a giant piece of chocolate cake staring you in the face, the impulse purchase you might make at your favorite store, or the gutsy move you might make with your investment funds. If your thinking system is disabled, all you have left is your impulsive self to make quick judgments and then set habitual actions in motion.

Where do these habitual actions come from? Probably a complex composite of several different sources, including your personality (how you are wired), your current needs (what it would take in this situation to pursue pleasure and avoid pain), and your learning history (which of your responses have been reinforced in the past).

Thankfully, we have the controlled system to ensure that our impulsive self does not dominate all of our daily transactions. You will read more about that system in the next post.

For now, though, think about this: When are you most likely to see your impulsive self emerge? Can you think of any famous examples of individuals who got in trouble because their impulsive self was able to act unchecked?