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Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Impulse explores what people do despite knowing better, along with snap decisions that occasionally enrich their lives. This eye-opening account looks at two kinds of thinking--one slow and reflective, the other fast but prone to error--and shows how our mental tracks switch from the first to the second, leading to impulsive behavior.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72990-2
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. XI-XII)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. XIII-XXII)

    As I write these words, my head is watching me from across the room. Every so often the eyes – a colour match for my own – blink. From time to time the mouth silently opens and closes. Created from a life cast that involved pouring gloopy blue resin all over my head and shoulders, while I breathed through straws stuck up each nostril, it is a perfect replica.

    Perfect, that is, save for one rather sobering difference. While I have aged, my second head, created more than a decade ago, remains – like some three-dimensional Dorian Gray in reverse – youthful. It still...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Impulse That Saved My Life
    (pp. 1-10)

    On 4 December 1971, while working as a journalist in Belfast, I went to the cinema on an impulse. That impulse saved my life.

    I had first visited Northern Ireland in September 1969, a few weeks after an attempted march by the Protestant Apprentice Boys through the Catholic Bogside area of Derry had led to three days of rioting. Three days later, on 14 August, with civil unrest and sectarian violence on the increase, the British government under Harold Wilson sent in troops for what they claimed would be a ‘limited operation’. It was the start of 20 years of...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Impulses and Your Zombie Brain
    (pp. 11-26)

    Visitors to my laboratory, on the south coast of England, often feel disgusted. Or they may become angry, anxious, amused, astonished, frustrated, bewildered, stressed, startled, shocked or sexually excited. It’s all done with their full consent and in the name of science. Our studies are designed to investigate the role of emotions in triggering impulsive behaviours. A typical research project involves ‘wiring up’ our volunteers to record what’s going on in their brain and body during the experience. A network of electrodes are attached to their scalp and connected to an EEG (electroencephalograph) that records electrical activity in their brain....

  7. CHAPTER 3 Inside the Impulsive Brain
    (pp. 27-42)

    At 4.30 in the afternoon of Wednesday 13 September 1848, a bizarre accident propelled an American railway worker named Phineas Gage from 19th-century obscurity to 21st-century celebrity.¹ A photograph of 26-year-old Gage, taken a few months after the accident, shows a soberly dressed young man with a slightly lopsided gaze. His left eye is closed as a result of his accident but other scars are concealed beneath dark, neatly brushed hair. In his hands he holds the long iron rod that was driven through his skull by the explosion. This is the ‘tamping rod’ that he had made especially for...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Teenage Brain – A Work in Progress
    (pp. 43-55)

    On 28 July 1999, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, a Florida highway patrol officer and single mother, agreed to look after Tiffany Eunick, the 6-year-old daughter of her best friend. Although Kathleen’s 12-year-old son, Lionel, had only known the little girl for a few weeks, they appeared to get along well together. After supper, Tiffany and Lionel went into the living room to watch TV while Kathleen completed some household chores upstairs. At around ten o’clock she heard a lot of noise in the living room and yelled at the children to be quiet. Forty minutes later her son came up stairs and...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Impulse and the Senses
    (pp. 56-71)

    In 1572, a royal ball was held in the Louvre to celebrate the marriage of Henri de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, to 16-year-old Marie de Clèves, a young woman possessing ‘great beauty and sweetness of nature’. Recounting the events of that evening some two centuries later, the French anatomist Jules Germain Cloquet wrote: ‘After dancing for a long time and feeling slightly overcome by the heat of the ballroom, Marie went into a dressing room where one of the Queen’s maids helped her to change into a clean chemise. The Duke of Anjou [who later became Henry III] coming by...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Power of the Visual
    (pp. 72-87)

    In 1978, a woman in New Mexico ‘saw’ the face of Christ on a tortilla. Over the weeks that followed, thousands of Catholic pilgrims trekked from all over the country to pray before it. Scorch marks had transformed a tasty snack into a holy relic and mastication into veneration. Perceiving patterns, such as a face or an animal’s head, in a stain, a cloud or a piece of food is termedpareidolia.¹ The word – from the Greekpara(resembling) andeidos(image) – was first introduced into medical practice, around 1885, by Victor Kandinsky, a Russian psychiatrist.² One theory suggests that...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Impulses and the Risk-Taking Personality
    (pp. 88-108)

    During the second week of September 2008, while conducting research in New York, I stayed in a hotel next door to the Lehman Brothers building. From my bedroom window I could look down on a flat roof, covered in Astroturf, used by their staff for exercise. For several days I watched the same man chasing a ball up and down the length of the roof, running endlessly backwards and forwards through the early morning light. At the time I wondered at his energy, the monotony of his routine and his skill in controlling the ball. I might have done better...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Love Impulse – ‘It Only Takes a Moment’
    (pp. 109-131)

    Humans are the sexiest animals on earth. The only species which, free from the constraints of reproductive necessity, engages in sexual activity whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. We regularly decide, usually on an impulse, whether or not we find another person sexually desirable. This typically split-second judgement – it can be reached in less than a hundredth of a second – proves remarkably resistant to change and likely to influence all our future interactions with that person. Yet while we may find it easy enough to say whether or not we are attracted to someone, it is usually far harder to...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Overeating Impulse – Digging Our Graves with Our Teeth
    (pp. 132-148)

    We make some 200 decisions about what, where, when and how much to eat each day¹, the majority on an impulse. These are mindless food choices, which, more than anything else, helps explain why so many people are risking their health and shortening their lives by piling on the pounds.

    Obesity is nothing new. The Hohle Fels Venus, carved from mammoth ivory and dug up in Germany in 2008, depicts a short, squat woman with pendulous breasts, broad shoulders, wide hips and a bulging belly. Suitable models, both male and female, can be seen in the towns and cities of...

  14. CHAPTER 10 The Buying Impulse – The How and Why of What We Buy
    (pp. 149-161)

    While making a TV documentary about supermarkets, I asked shoppers leaving the store whether or not they had bought anything on impulse. All but one agreed they had. Only a middle-aged man denied having done so. ‘I make a list and stick to it,’ he told me rather smugly. Then added, ‘I’m a supermarket manager and I know all the tricks!’ For many shoppers his answer will confirm their suspicion that supermarkets are in the business of cunningly persuading them to impulse-buy things they don’t really need and may not easily be able to afford.

    To be sure, supermarkets have...

  15. CHAPTER 11 The Imitation Impulse – ‘A Beautiful Place to Die’
    (pp. 162-178)

    Yawn in a crowded room and others will yawn too. Yawning is infectious. So is laughter. Which is why a studio audience, or at least a recorded ‘laughter track’, is used on TV comedies. It encourages viewers to think what they are watching really is funny. Cry and those around you are likely to feel more miserable. Become angry and others may follow your example. Throw a brick through the window of an abandoned building and within hours every pane of glass will have been smashed. Leap to your feet at the end of a performance and, almost at once,...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Deplete Us Not Into Temptation
    (pp. 179-197)

    As Ulysses and his crew sailed home from the Trojan War they came close to the island home of the Sirens, beautiful maidens who lured sailors onto the rocks by their enchanted singing. Determined to hear their wondrous songs and survive, Ulysses ordered his men to tie him tightly to the mast and then block their ears with wax ‘so he alone could hear the Sirens’ Song and live’. The ploy worked. Legend tells how ‘the Sirens’ melody fell upon Ulysses’ charmed ears; but, although he commanded and implored his men to set him free and alter their course, they...

  17. AFTERWORD Free Will Is a Grand Illusion
    (pp. 198-204)

    After a lifetime of happy marriage and respectability a 40-year-old American man suddenly and inexplicably became a paedophile. He began collecting child pornography, propositioning children and making sexual advances to his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Found guilty of child molestation, he was offered a choice between serving a prison sentence or attending a sexual addiction programme. Despite a strong desire to avoid jail the man was incapable of controlling his urges. The evening before his prison sentence was due to start he walked into the emergency room of the University of Virginia Hospital and requested a brain scan. This was performed and...

  18. Notes and References
    (pp. 205-248)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 249-296)
  20. Index
    (pp. 297-310)