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Impulsiveness, a resource to fuel our creativity?

Posted 4th November 2019

“Both my best and worst habit is that I’m very impulsive.” Tove Lo

How many times have you heard this exclamation; “You’ll never guess what I learned today!”. “As humans, we have an impulse to share what is going on in our head, our feelings, our experience” stated Shankar Vedantam in his podcast “Hidden Brain” this week. This urge to share our stories not only differentiate us from other species but also influences what those around us think. Indeed, humans tend to believe what they hear as long as the story they hear is simple and easy to process. We also tend to believe stories who feel familiar to us so the constant repetition of a story will make it sound true. Hence the success of social media and the spread of fake news. Therefore, the urge to share a story can hide a genuine desire of sharing or/and alternatively, it can hide a craving for attention and recognition.

In his book, “Thinking fast and slow”, Daniel Kahneman defines this impulsive decision making as “system 1” – an automatic system to make decisions quickly based on previous experience. In his view, this system needs to be kept in check by the more reflective, thorough “system 2”, which weighs the alternatives and the long term consequences before making a decision. 

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Most scientists and behavioural economists agree that everybody is inclined to behave impulsively but those who develop emotional self-regulation skills (such as identifying triggers or defining coping strategies) are able to resist immediate rewards over long term benefits. By controlling impulsiveness, we are less likely to become addicts and more likely to become healthier, richer human beings.  

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So is impulsivity always blameworthy? Does it always lead us to destructive behaviour?

In 1990, Robert Dickman identified two types of impulsive behaviour; dysfunctional impulsivity and functional impulsivity. Dysfunctional impulsivity has a negative connotation, it describes rushing into action without a second thought, which can lead to detrimental consequences. On the other hand, functional impulsivity has a positive connotation. It refers to the quality of being impulsive in a spontaneous way which can lead to a good outcome.

As Kahneman suggested in his book, impulsive or automatic behaviours can be useful. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to multitask and make quick decisions. Impulsiveness is not only useful in helping us to think more quickly but it’s usually characterised by enthusiasm and energy that propels us to act swiftly and grab an opportunity when it presents itself (functional impulsivity).

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This functional impulsivity can also be behind a CEO’s decision to take a risk about investing in a new venture that he trusts will be successful. Innovative CEOs either trust their experience when they take this type of risks or believe in their unique insight. When Brian Chesky founded Airbnb in 2008, nobody wanted to invest in the crazy idea that strangers would pay to rent a room in another stranger’s place. But as he explained in this interview, Brian Chesky and his partner hosted some strangers in their apartment, which led to the belief that they had discovered something new – namely that strangers could be trusted. The belief in this (at the time) unique insight fueled their boldness and their resilience and they stuck to this apparently preposterous idea despite constant rejection from investors. The rest is history.

The starting of Airbnb proves that impulsive behaviour can be the motivating force behind a great idea. It can also represent the expression of creative bursts. A creative example is Jean-Michel Basquiat, who first attracted public attention in the late seventies tagging the graffiti “SAMO”, a.k.a. Same Old Shirt, all over Manhattan and Brooklyn buildings.  Complementary to impulsiveness, a lack of inhibition combined with a sense of urgency can push artists and others towards an unorthodox path – this can lead to great achievements.

Finally, recent research has highlighted that people that believe in the creative power of impulsiveness end up being more creative (the silver-lining theory). During an experiment related to impulsiveness, participants who were shown a (bogus) paper linking creativity and impulsiveness, scored higher marks on creative tasks than those who believed that there was no connection between creativity and impulsiveness. The researcher concluded that the silver-lining effect could be explained by the additional effort made by participants as a result of the belief of a connection between creativity and impulsiveness.

The facets of functional impulsivity such as developing strong bonds with other humans, multitasking, grabbing opportunities, believing in a unique insight or producing an extra effort to confirm the link between impulsivity and creativity, are quintessentially human attributes. In a future world where much will be automated, it is good to remember that these are the attributes that make us uniquely human.

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