Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP

Do the Right Thing

Impulse Control: Why Is It Harder than Ever?

It is so hard to say no when you want to say yes!

Posted Sep 12, 2011

Managing impulses has always been challenging but now it is harder than perhaps ever before. Why?

I'm still amazed that in the two years that I've been blogging for Psychology Today the post that received by far the most hits was one that I wrote on impulse control. Perhaps I hit a nerve. People seem to know that managing impulses is very difficult now and need advice about improving their skills in this area.

Research has consistently demonstrated that there are many benefits to being able to manage one's impulses. For example, the famous Stanford marshmallow study asking young preschool children to sit in front of a marshmallow and wait before being able to eat it is a classic example. Those preschoolers who were able to resist their impulse to eat the marshmallow right away were more likely to complete their education, stay married, had better career success and were less likely to have addiction and other troubles decades later.

More and more people today are being diagnosed with impulse control disorders evidenced by the increasing numbers of both children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and addiction diagnoses. So many of the troubles that people get themselves into such as eating and drinking too much, anger management problems, financial ruin, addictions of various kinds, pornography use, relationship infidelity, and the like have impulse control problems at their root.

In my view, this problem will get much worse before it gets better. Why? One of the unintended consequences of our many technological advances as well as how our cultural values have evolved is the ability to secure instant gratification. We all want our desires met right away but now so many of these desires can actually be met right away. Instant credit, fast food, answers to almost any question available on the internet, internet pornography, and so forth are good examples. Even instant celebrity via YouTube, reality television, and the like are excellent examples.

I wish I had an answer for this problem. I see in so many areas (including among my college students and my clinical patients) tremendous stressors when it comes to managing impulses. So many struggle with these challenges. There seems to be no simple answers. Somehow we need to find a way to say no to things when we want so very much to say yes. We can suggest counting to 10, just say no, and keeping these temptations away by better controlling our environment (e.g., keep the ice creme out of the house) but this advice seems too little too late for many people. 

Controlling and managing impulses seems so countercultural today...yet necessary! 

How do you cope with these challenges?