Donuts photographed by CoolKid1993; accessed through Wikimedia Commons

This post marks the second in a four-part series aimed at understanding impulse control and why it’s important when it comes to maintaining our financial health.

Last week, we looked at the “unthinking side” of impulse control: the impulsive self that operates underneath the radar of our conscious mind and makes quick decisions that sometimes get us into trouble.  (Think, “Exactly how did that pack of donuts jump into my grocery cart without my awareness?”)

Now let’s consider the “thinking side”: the other system, called the controlled system, that makes sure the impulsive self does not always get its way.  This is the systematic, logical, planful side of ourselves that makes a list long before we get to the grocery store to make sure those donuts don’t jump into the cart!

It’s the side of ourselves that can think through things using language and reflection and can identify what is going to be best for our overall health and well-being down the road.  This side is interested in saving rather than impulsively splurging.  It is engaged in thoughtful research into investment products rather than acting on a random tip from the shady guy at the office water cooler.

What are the components of this controlled system?  There are probably many, but science has uncovered at least three components so far: (1) learning history, (2) working memory, and (3) inhibitory control.

First, we know that there are certain learning activities that may help children build skills in self-discipline that will come in handy later in life.  For example, activities such as music lessons and organized sports may help children learn to follow directions and control impulses.  There is even some fascinating evidence that self-discipline can be strengthened in children through games such as “Touch Your Toes!”, which requires children to touch their heads when the leader says “Touch your toes,” and to touch their toes when the leader says “Touch your head.”

Second, our controlled system works better when we have better working memory.  Working memory is the capacity to hold several pieces of information in our head, to manipulate that information, and to use it in a constructive way.  If someone reads seven digits aloud to you and asks you to repeat the digits back in reverse order, you would be using your working memory.  It seems that if we have good working memory, we have the ability to focus our attention on some end goal without getting sidetracked by temptations.

A third component of the controlled system is inhibitory control, which is our ability to put the brakes on our behavior when we need to.  This task is usually handled by the frontal lobes of the brain, which serve to stop us from acting against our better judgment.  Another term for this is “executive functioning.”  This system seems to be trainable to some extent, but it may also be subject to the limits of our physiology.

Next week, we’ll take a look at why our impulses sometimes overwhelm our controlled system and take over our behavior.

Until then, think about this: What are the areas of life where marketers and advertisers are banking on us going with our impulses instead of using our reflective thought?