Impulse control

Awareness of emotions, as we explored in the last article, is just one step towards being a successful CEO. Once we are aware of our emotions we need to listen to them, understand what they are telling us and then respond appropriately.

Humans experience different emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise being some of the most common ones (we will explore this in greater detail in the next newsletter).

As we discussed previously, each emotion sends us information to provoke a reaction. Fear, for example, is designed to make us react to protect ourselves; running form a lion for example. Guilt tells us we are acting against our value system.

Those reactions are extremely important and how we react can be lifesaving.

But we also need to learn whether we are reacting appropriately and proportionately whether we are misinterpreting our feelings.

Instinct versus impulse

To start it is important to distinguish between impulse and instinct. Impulse is something that we need to control while instinct is something we need to listen to.

Let’s start by understanding instinct.

In his book Blink Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of ‘the statue that didn’t look right’. In 1983 the J Paul Getty Museum in California were approached by someone offering a statue claiming to be form the sixth century BC. The seller wanted $10m. After 14 months of exploration, the museum decided the statue was real. However, when a world famous art historian came to see the new exhibit, he instantly declared it a fake and he was correct.

Gladwell asks how could a human take just two seconds to uncover something that 14 months’ worth of fastidious forensic work failed to spot?

The answer lies in the ‘two parts’ of the human brain. First is the animal or primal  and the other is the modern or thinking part (frontal cortex). Of course, the brain is far more complex than this, but ultimately the animal part of the brain drives emotional response.

It is this animal part of the brain that told the art historians the statue didn’t look right. It is this part of the brain that tells us we don’t like someone before we have even spoken to them. It is an emotional response and one which provokes a reaction.

The instinct is that the statue isn’t right or the person is dislikeable. The impulse – or action – is to move away from the person, or reject the statue.

This is where the human brain needs to kick in. What if the instinct is wrong and the person to whom one has taken an instant dislike is actually quite fantastic? What if the statue was indeed real? We need to override the impulse and find out more. We must seek out knowledge from other sources to feed into our behaviour so we react appropriately.

Controlling the animal brain

The challenge lies in understanding why we are feeling a certain emotion. Next is to listen to it and then process it. Finally we need to control the impulse.

When the animal brain is in full force, the human or thinking brain switches off.

It is at this point it becomes difficult to control one’s emotions. For example, when someone is overwhelmed with anger they might physically assault another person. If they were able to listen to that emotion, understand it, the thinking brain to come back online. At this point impulse control happens and they would see that violence leads to arrest, leads to police charges which results in all the other negative outcomes.

The same is true of happiness. When a human eats delicious but fattening food, we know it is not good over indulge, yet the impulse to return is overwhelming because the emotion feels so good. This is clearly the case with alcoholism or drug addiction. Drinking or getting high feels good and the impulse outweighs the sensible course.

The key to impulse control lies first in being aware of emotions. Next is to listen to them; then process how this makes us feel; then to think about how to react.

Imagine you are on a commercial flight. An announcement comes over the Tannoy system that anyone with flying experience should come to the cockpit. You have had some lessons and offer to help. You realise quite quickly that both the pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated, and you take over. All the lights are flashing, sirens and alarms are sounding and everything appears in chaos. You put on the headset and you hear a calm voice, telling you to look at each dial. The voice tells you what they mean and how to switch each one to the right setting. The voice explains how to turn off the sirens and to guide the plane into land.

All the buttons, dials and alarms were providing information, but without understanding them they were of no use. The emergency pilot could easily have flicked the wrong switch or taken the wrong course of action because they could not interpret the messages.

Emotions are just the same as the in-flight instruments. They are incredibly important but we have to learn to use them appropriately.

In the next article we will learn more about the emotions, what they mean and how to understand them.


Intuition and impulse are not the same thing. Intuition is a reaction to something based in intelligence and experience. An impulse is a response to an emotion. Therefore we need to listen to our intuition but control our impulses. The impulsive reaction may well turn out to be the right response but we need to be sure.  This means taking the time to be aware of the emotion, listening to it, understanding it, processing it and then responding appropriately.

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