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Philosophy Piece: 5 Psychological Strategies to Control Catastrophic Impulsivity

Or what we can learn from Dr Faustus' pact with the Devil

Low impulse control tends to lead to greater unhappiness, poorer mental health, increased lifestyle-induced illness, and earlier death.

“A motto of the human race: Let me do as I like, and give me approval as well.”

– Idries Shah

Remember Dr Faustus?

He was the chap who sold his soul to the Devil. What did he get out of the bargain?

Twenty-four years of ultimate personal indulgence.1 He got to kiss (and more) that ship-launching beauty Helen of Troy and do all kinds of things that you or I would probably just love to do given half the chance if no one was watching.

Imagine it: completely and utterly indulging every hedonistic whim, every pleasure that comes to mind and body, with absolutely no consequences.

Having all you want, when you want; a lifetime, almost, of instant gratification and endless delights. Give me some of that.

Oh, wait…

Whoopee! to whoops!

There’s a price to pay.

For Dr Faustus, when it came time for the Devil to collect, he demanded (as had been the agreement) one earthly soul.

You see, Madoff – er, I mean Faustus! – had come to really believe he could get away with it; that he’d never have to pay for satisfying his appetites for so many years.

And what a price to pay! Eternal damnation, punishment without end. Whoops!

Because while our favourite sellout merchant was wildly partying, having a ball, living the dream, and being all rock’n’roll, he hadn’t given eternity a second thought!

If only poor Dr F had used a little impulse control. But we shouldn’t judge him too harshly; after all, who hasn’t given into impulse and had to face the consequences? Yours truly is certainly on that list.

And the ‘Devil’ often, superficially at least, seems to be his opposite. We can all make gods out of the very things that will, eventually, bring us down.

You see, we’re all potentially Dr Faustus – and maybe we shouldn’t stand in glasshouses throwing stones!

We’re all Dr Faustus (potentially)

The Faustian pact. This pact with the ‘Devil’ isn’t perhaps so much a story as an illustration of what happens all the time, in all places, within all types of people. Greed, lust, or merely the habitual giving in to impulse without reflecting on consequences, can lead to wretchedness in all its forms – however delayed payback time might be.

“It feels good now so I’ll do it” doesn’t even sound that unreasonable.

We can all be beaten by our emotions to act in ways we really shouldn’t.

Read the news today and I guarantee you’ll find Dr Faustus in the guise of a sex-scandal-enmeshed politician or a drug-addled ‘train wreck’ celebrity. Or Dr Faustus might be a financier recklessly bringing their bank to the brink of meltdown. Whole cultures can be Dr Faustus: the banking crisis, subprime mortgages, unbridled pollution, mass obesity – the pattern is the same.

Enjoy now, pay later, then be shocked or outraged by just how much you have to pay and, if you’re creative enough, blame others.

That’s the classic pact with the Devil – that’s Dr Faustus.

But as I say, let’s not judge and condemn out of hand.

Impulse control can feel wholly justified

When people don’t meet their emotional needs in balance, it becomes so much easier to drink that bottle, take those drugs, go back home with that dodgy stranger, because… why the hell not!

Having low impulse control when we’re emotionally damaged and vulnerable and in need of something, anything, to make us feel better – a blocking out rather than a true fulfilment – is understandable.

And impulse control can be notoriously lacking in some young people, as the prefrontal lobes of the brain haven’t yet fully matured.

A key trait of many psychopaths may also be poor impulse control, especially if they didn’t have a stable upbringing. Psychopaths appear to have reduced connectivity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for guilt and empathy) and the amygdala, which mediates fear and anxiety. Punishing psychopaths seems to do little to reduce reckless behaviour in the future.

But psychopathy is pretty rare, and low impulse control is by no means the sole preserve of the 1% or so of people who may be psychopathic. And many psychopaths can regulate their impulses.

Good impulse control is a sign of maturity and emotional development, but that doesn’t mean we should denigrate those who still don’t have this, because they may be suffering all kinds of things we cannot fully appreciate.

It’s also true to say that so much ‘bad luck’ can really be accounted for by a failure to rein in impulses, sometimes years before. Short-term thinking (as in the case of political decisions  to win votes) now can lead to unintended terrible consequences later on for societies. Likewise, on an individual level, seldom reining in impulses can lead to ruin and misery.

The devil usually comes to collect.

So is all failure, decay, and upset caused by lame or non-existent personal impulse control?

The pitfalls of low impulse control

Of course not all misfortune is down to lack of self-control. Bad things happen to good people, and people can experience hard financial times or poor health after making wise and judicious choices. Some people wait much longer for old Beelzebub to finally rock up.

To genuinely believe you can 100% control what happens to you is a simplistic ideology peddled by the kind of positive-thinking ‘gurus’ that give the rest of us a bad name.

To genuinely believe you can 100% control what happens to you is a simplistic ideology peddled by the kind of positive-thinking 'gurus' that give the rest of us a bad name. Click to Tweet

But it’s true that millions do arrive at a state of misery, despair, and pain because of issues left unaddressed, healthy decisions not made, opportunities missed, and impulses indulged. People do have to face their own personal hell as a consequence of earlier decisions.

One problem is that the ‘devil’ may come in the form of that cheery friend who keeps offering you cigarettes even as you’re trying to quit. Or the plausible loan shark. Or the endless sugary treats between meals that drive up body inflammation, making you fat. Yes, the ‘devil’ can be charming, attractive, seductive, and convincing. Just as Dr Faustus found.

And what’s more, many of us have been fed a kind of “if I want it, I should have it” mentality by the very society we live in.

Thanks, Society!

The “live now, pay later” culture

The recent “if it feels good, do it” ideology that rides off the back of mass consumerism sure doesn’t help. Stoicism, dignity, and self-control went out of fashion from the 1960s and became seen as unhealthy, dull, and – that worst sin of all – old-fashioned.

With the demise of religion and an increasing sense that “now is all there is”, a new kind of materialism emerged: hedonism.

Some people have bought into the idea that personal pleasure and shortcuts to fragile and fleeting happiness are really all that matter.

Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

I’m starting to remind myself of the worst kind of boorish, elderly killjoy (I do really love joy, believe it or not). Certainly, letting it all hang out and giving free rein to our impulses sounds attractive (and some overly controlled folk would do well to do a bit more of that). If doing what we feel when we want it does bring happiness, then why not.

But what does the research tell us?

Well, all this might all be well and fine if doing what feels good and giving into self-indulgence really did produce happiness over and above a kind of fleeting emotional sugar high. But all the evidence shows that low impulse control tends to lead to greater unhappiness, poorer mental health, increased lifestyle-induced illness, and earlier death.2

So just how common are problems with impulse control? Well, there’s been a trend recently that you may have noticed.

Adult ADHD on the rise?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) used to be primarily a disorder diagnosed in children, often young boys.

Yet ADHD diagnoses among adults are growing four times faster than are ADHD diagnoses among children, at least in the USA. There’s been a 26.4% increase in diagnosis among children versus a whopping 123.3% among adults.3

A sceptical take on this might be that ‘disease mongering’ widens the criteria for a diagnosis, thereby spreading the net so that more people can fit the diagnosis – and more drugs, such as lisdexamfetamine, can be sold in greater numbers.

A less cynical interpretation might be that adult ADHD, what we might call an impulsivity disorder, is simply being more recognized now, and that surely is a good thing. This, of course, is the interpretation and idea that pharmaceutical capitalists promulgate and encourage – which doesn’t mean it’s not true or partially true, of course.

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Off the hook?

Celebrities4 line up to proclaim their ADHD diagnosis. Diagnostic lists may be quite simplistic and include such criteria as being easily distracted and finding it hard sometimes to complete tasks.

There are two sides to how it can feel to be diagnosed. People tend to either feel that “at least I have a name for it, and an explanation!” and/or “I can’t do anything about it!” (other than take the meds).

We know how damaging and powerful labelling can be.

Like most things in life, labels can help and harm. One potential danger of an ADHD diagnosis is that it can cause people to take less responsibility for themselves than they otherwise might.

But the human being is always developable, notwithstanding labels and limitations.

So how can we all learn to say “no thanks” to that little devil inside of us, unlike poor Dr Faustus?

Oh, and lest you feel patronized by the following, the ‘you’ stands in for all of us. Me (maybe in greater need than you!), you, Dr Faustus, your clients and friends. So, resisting the impulse to supply more caveats, let’s go!

Strategy one: Think about what impulses you want to control ahead of time

I hope I’m not the soulless (oh, the irony!), uber-sensible, uptight person I may be misconstrued as from reading all this. Actually, impulsivity isn’t always bad; of course it’s not. It’s great sometimes to be spontaneous, to not have to consider every little decision logically and analytically: “Fancy coming to the beach this afternoon?” “Yeah, why not? Let’s do it!”

Impulsivity can help you open up to opportunities you’d sometimes miss if you hadn’t acted on impulse. Sometimes we need to trust our snap decisions and intuitions.

But if your impulse control is weak in areas that lead to long- or even mid-term bad consequences (and you know that if you’re honest), then you need to be prepared before those impulses arise so you can effectively deal with them when they show up. Write down the impulses you want to control and conquer before you have them. Do that now, while the impulse to deal with your impulses lasts!

Be sure in your own mind just which impulses are leading you to eternal damnation – sorry, I mean, are not healthy (that Faustus legend has really gotten to me!).

Strategy two: Before the impulse takes hold, think where the consequences may lead

If Dr Faustus had sat down and really thought hard about what selling his soul forever just for the sake of a few years of pleasure would actually entail, he may have been less tempted to sign on the Devil’s dotted line.

We know not to jump out of high buildings, even though falling through the air might be fun, because we know the consequences of landing. We know the price to pay – and there’s always a price. That’s what stops us: a real awareness of the consequences.

So whether it’s smoking, risky sexual behaviour, gambling, or impulsively insulting people at every opportunity, sit down and really think about all the possible – even likely – long- or short-term consequences of these actions.

In this way, you can exercise the most sophisticated and recently (in evolutionary terms) developed area in your brain: the prefrontal lobes, which are there in part for long-term advantage and bigger-picture thinking.

Hypnotically we can really experience the reality of the consequences of impulses let loose.

If you’re struggling with cravings, close your eyes and imagine the reality later of having eaten that whole cake and feeling it lurk lumpily on the floor of your stomach. If you tend to lash out at people in anger, truly imagine how you will feel later when you reflect on that hurt. This helps prevent the dopamine-laced addictive amnesia (for consequences) that occurs when we’re in the grip of an impulsive drive.

And for heaven’s sake (as Faustus might have said), don’t pussyfoot around your own impulses.

Strategy three: Don’t make excuses for your impulsiveness

Smoking ‘just one’ cigarette or gobbling ‘just one’ jam doughnut or taking ‘just one’ ecstasy pill seems harmless because it’s ‘just one’. Know that it isn’t just one: it’s one on top of many others. And it only takes one to tip the balance and cause catastrophic consequences.

Think about it. Cancer might grow over time (90% of lung cancers are caused by smoking), but even before the first cancerous cells develop, the smoker’s body will:

  • become more vulnerable,
  • reach a stage where cancer may or may not start, then…
  • Wham! That ‘one more’ cigarette tips the whole balance.

Forget “just one” and think “one final straw that broke the camel’s back”, because that one takes you nearer to or even into the consequences that await. Making excuses as to why it’s really okay can amount to lying to yourself, which is what Dr Faustus did when dealing with the Devil in the first place.

Just one more paddle toward the roaring waterfall isn’t just any old paddle; it may be the point of no return.

Excuses can be disentangled from reasons. If I snap unfairly at someone I can understand the reasons: that I hadn’t slept, or that I’d had a series of frustrations that day, and so on. But reasons are not excuses. And excuses are dishonest, so…

Strategy four: Don’t lie to yourself

In the real world of dratted consequences, conscious squaring – doing what we want to do, then hoping to be lauded as ‘good’ for doing it, or at least feeling that we were justified in doing it – brings forth a huge amount of creativity. Oh, those sweet justifications!

Such mental contortions help us avoid feeling hypocritical or evil and may block us from confronting our own lack of impulsivity or severe emotional incontinence. We can self-flatteringly justify all kinds of behaviours, and thereby sink deeper into the murky, claggy depths of denial.

When we’re consumed with greed or feel in other ways emotionally compelled to follow an impulse, we’ll often try to justify it by making up reasons why it’s really okay to give in to it. We lie to ourselves.

Be honest. If you really can’t resist that belly-fat-inducing treat, then rather than telling yourself you are “just being polite” by accepting yet another death-by-chocolate cake, try some refreshing honesty: “Okay, I’m going to have this because of short-term enjoyment and because getting trim and healthy obviously doesn’t matter that much to me!”


Now, at least you know who you are in this situation. And with clarity comes the possibility of some kind of potential ‘salvation’ (since I’m on this Faustian theme!).

Impulses can seem all-encompassing, like an avalanche of personal intention.

And yet we can step aside and observe the cascading force running past us and gradually diminishing.

Strategy five: Step out of the impulse

Imagine the impulse striking you, just about to take hold and grip you, but… before it does, you slip out of it and are free!

Impulses are ‘hypnotic’ in that they narrow our focus, then totally direct our attention so that we forget all other thoughts, feelings, or considerations.

We can mindfully practise strongly envisaging a particular impulse starting to envelope us, then opening our eyes, closing them again, and just as quickly engaging ourselves in some other, more wholesome focus. The more we practise this ‘switching’, the weaker that impulse will become.

Of course, we may need help to do this from someone psychologically skilled in this kind of approach.

Controlling our impulses isn’t just about ‘being morally ‘correct’ though.

Efficient and effective

The story of Dr Faustus aside, the call to rein in your impulses isn’t moralistic as much as functional.

You, we, I become more efficient, effective, and happy when we master or at least gain more control over unruly impulses that seek to wreck long-term plans. We become better people, more capable of supporting others, too.

Ultimately, we need to decide whether we are prepared to be controlled by our impulses, or ready to control them. Do we want to be pushed around like a plastic bag in the wind?

Dr Faustus and the millions of us who have fallen into the same trap regret that the deal was ever made, whether that deal was smoking, eating toxic ‘food’, spending recklessly, watching TV instead of devoting time to developmental pursuits, or whatever.

Unruly impulse following is but a dim and distant reflection of consciously acting on sudden intuition. But that, as they say, is another story.

Returning to the tale of poor Dr Faustus, I like to think we won’t meet the same end, that we still have time… for now.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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  1. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, 1604. This was based on an earlier story simply entitled Faust that had been inspired by a shadowy true-life figure, Dr Johan Faust.
  2. This is evidenced, for example, in the results of the famous ‘marshmallow test‘, in which four-year-olds were given a marshmallow and promised another, but only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers followed the progress of each child into adolescence and demonstrated that those with the capacity to delay gratification were better adjusted, healthier, more dependable, and happier.

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