The Wisdom of Spontaneity (Part 2)

Are you spontaneous or impulsive?--and why you should care.

Posted Apr 03, 2009

Source: Skateboarding/Pixabay

What makes a young child's unthinking behavior impulsive rather than spontaneous is that typically it hasn't first been "previewed" (or "mediated") by some internal censoring mechanism. This is why I assign impulsivity to the realm of childhood, and spontaneity to the domain of the adult. Doing something "on the spur of the moment" might describe either adult or child. But kids do such things because, in the moment, the behavior is irresistible. Adults, more knowledgeable--and therefore "wiser"--do them because they view them as safe enough to do.

What this is meant to suggest (no surprise here) is that children can easily be governed by immediate inclination, whim, or desire. Adults, however--benefiting from hundreds of thousands of hours of life experience--are better able to count the costs of their behavior. And so each action taken is "informed" by numerous past mistakes, insensitivities, and oversights. (And, of course, I'm referring here to mentally healthy adults, capable of learning from past experiences.) Only actions that are prudent--or at least safely "gotten away with"--are performed (say, jubilantly dancing in the rain . . . but with an umbrella, or doorway, at hand). Other behaviors--which their internal censoring mechanism may determine to be detrimental--are deemed not prudent, and therefore disallowed.

Inasmuch as internal controls are operating (though unconsciously), adults can express themselves spontaneously in the here-and-now without fear of their behaviors' coming back to haunt them. There's a certain "authority" in these unplanned actions that isn't possible with children, who simply haven't lived long enough to realistically assess (on the fly, as it were) the associated risks of their behavior.

As adults, curiosity, a sense of adventure, or what is believed to be necessary or pleasurable, can all motivate us to act--or react--spontaneously. And again, if we act spontaneously, it doesn't mean that we haven't--somewhere in the back of our mind--evaluated the possible liability of that particular behavior. It's just that such assessment happens in a flash (i.e., spontaneously). Because of knowledge gained from experience, we can instantaneously judge whether an action makes sense, is safe--or at least poses a risk that is manageable.

Contrast this to impulsivity, where--because we're driven to do something--we're not able to take fully into account its possible consequences (like impulsively reaching for another drink when we've already had as much as we can handle). In this case, it's our immediate feelings, unmediated by any deliberative thought process, that exert pressure on us to act. Our best judgment just isn't available.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell rightly observes that "spontaneous opinions and decisions arise out of the unconscious." My own point is similar, but what I believe should be emphasized is that there's a lot more going on in our unconscious mind at the time than might be apparent. We may not actually need to think about something before acting because we have thought about it (or something similar to it) in the past. It's as though, paradoxically, we've already prepared ourselves to make the so-called "spontaneous" decision we're making right now.

The always important issue of control, vital in distinguishing between acts that are spontaneous and those that are impulsive, is also worth emphasizing. Acting on impulse is something that's generally done in an unbalanced state. Our mental/emotional equilibrium is upset. We're not--can't be--in full control of ourselves. Our actions have a quality to them that's reflexive, reactive, automatic. They're beyond our power to take charge of, or consciously control--as (to give an extreme example) the "nerve impulses" involved in an epileptic seizure.

The immediate aftermath of acting on some immediate impulse (irresistible and impelled as it is) can result in further upset, and lead to a state of greater imbalance. In such instances, we're "acting under stress of emotion"--as in "impulsive acts of violence" (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). And such a characterization indicates that absent the benefit of an underlying rational process, we're in danger of unwittingly being subjugated by forces beyond our control--forces that, potentially, can cause us (and others) real harm. When we talk about emotions getting the better of someone, we're actually talking about their impulses as having "taken over," or taking them over, and thus dictating their behavior in ways that may be hazardous.

Source: shopper, bag . . . / Pixabay

A radical example of being in the grip of overpowering impulses is the behavior of someone "caught" in the manic phase of bipolar disorder. What in fact defines someone in this disturbed state is their inability to fight off impulses that are potentially disastrous. The diagnostic manual DSM-IV offers as one of its criteria for this disorder the telling description: ". . . excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)."

I once worked with a woman who told me that before she was finally diagnosed as bipolar (and put on appropriate medication), she once went so overboard while watching QVC that she ordered for herself, friends and acquaintances a quantity of merchandise that completely filled up an entire UPS truck. (Needless to say, this was not at all helpful to her marriage!)

Contrast this alarming example of impulsive excess with the derivation, or etymology, of the word spontaneous. Going back to Late Latin, it means "of one's own accord" (American Heritage Dictionary); and this earliest definition implies that our acting spontaneously is in accordance with our beliefs and values. Self-generated, it's an expression of something deep inside us--and hardly a regression to primitive feelings or instincts not truly reflecting who we are. And although (contrary to impulsiveness) spontaneity assumes a certain measure of constraint, it yet permits us to do immediately anything consonant with our better judgment.

In essence, spontaneity is about adaptability and openness to change. It's about being willing to undertake new (or novel) behaviors when the "tried and true" is ineffective or, frankly, has become boring. In accordance with our better judgment, spontaneity doesn't have a mind of its own--as does the more primitive part of the brain that allows for the execution of compulsive behaviors. Indulging our appetites, passions, prejudices, or baser instincts is typically what's referred to in describing behavior that's impulsive. On the other hand, forethought is implicit in the whole notion of spontaneity, even though it may not be consciously evident. Such forethought is exactly what's "missing in action" with impulsive behavior. While neither behavior can be seen as planned or arranged, spontaneous acts (unlike impulsive ones) are in harmony with the person's values and interests. They're a natural by-product, outgrowth, or expression of something that's been thought about in the past--and therefore stored in memory.

This is why people who feel confident about their knowledge and experience give themselves permission to make ad-lib remarks and are comfortable speaking off-the-cuff. Having faith in their judgment, they can trust themselves to say what immediately "comes to [conscious] mind"--despite its not being part of their originally planned presentation. And it's not that, in the moment, they haven't made a conscious decision to deviate from what they'd prepared earlier. It's just that their internal calculations as to the cost/benefit of such an extemporaneous remark are made (as it were) in a nanosecond--are, in a word, spontaneous.

Note: Part 3 will demonstrate why living a life that's neither spontaneous nor impulsive represents another problem altogether, and part 4 will focus on the relationship between spontaneity and creativity. Finally, part 5 will look at how spontaneity may well be intrinsic to what we commonly recognize as happiness.

NOTE 1: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindlly consider forwarding them its link.

NOTE 2: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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