Emotional Intelligence- Impulse Control

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“I can resist everything except temptation”- Oscar Wilde

Most of us gain some kind of impulse control as we mature with age, as we mix with people, get exposure to different experiences in life etc. However, for some this may come very late in life or never.

The impulse control skill can best be demonstrated by the experiment which was done way back in the 1960s by Walter Mischel of Stanford University, which become famously called the marshmallow test. In this test, children ageing up to 4 years were made to sit in the room with a table, a chair and a marshmallow. Children were then instructed to take a small trip in the room and come back and sit on their place. They were given the option to eat the marshmallow immediately if they wanted, but if they waited till Mischel comes in the room after 15-20mins time, they will be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

Kids made the choice and Mischel noted the results. Two-thirds of the kids were able to hold on to their marshmallow and earn the second one, while others were not. They were simply not able to resist the temptation of eating the marshmallow till he came back. Some waited for a while and then decided that there was no fun to wait for the second one, so it would be wiser to eat the one which was in hand. Some kids were very alert and thought that if they touch the marshmallow, they will not be able to resist the temptation to eat it. So, they don’t even touch it. Some kids distracted their minds from marshmallow by engaging self in activities like playing, singing, tapping their feet, etc, to avoid eating it.

But that was not the end of the experiment. Mischel studied the same kids over a period of 12-14 years and came up with the following interesting conclusions:

  1. The kids who were able to resist the temptation of having marshmallow had grown more socially competent, self-assertive and shown a higher degree of Resilience, a skill necessary to bounce back in life after some reverses and failures.
  2. Those who were able to get the second marshmallow were better at delaying gratifications and more focused on their goals.
  3. Those kids who were not able to delay gratification had grown into stubborn, indecisive, and less equipped to make social contacts. They were more submissive to temptations and desires.
  4. Those kids who were able to reward themselves with a second one grew to have a better vision for the future and were more successful.
  5. They showed better social skills and skills at handling different situations in life and ahead of the game.

In other words, this quality of self-control at the age of 4 turned out to be twice a powerful indicator of later success in life as compared to IQ. In this experiment, the ability to delay gratification of eating the marshmallow was seen as the master skill where rational thinking part of the brain won over the emotions of the heart. In other words, this experiment proves that the capacity to put-off rewards is single skill psychologists pinpoint as an indicator of success in life.

So, what is Impulse control? It’s the ability to resist or delay an impulse, drive or temptation to act. To curb your natural tendencies to react and maintain your composure. It is identifying your angry and aggressive impulses and containing your angry, abusive, hostile and irresponsible behaviours.

“You promised me to take for Lunch and a Movie this Sunday afternoon, now suffer”

Some examples of poor impulse control:

  1. Not able to wait in the queue in a party buffet with a strong urge to start eating as early as possible.
  2. Not able to wait, after the traffic signal turns green by immediately starting to honk and getting impatient for the car in front to move.
  3. Snapping at the employees just after coming to office at the drop of hat for things that didn’t really matter or settings which are moved slightly away from the normal.
  4. Changing decisions very fast at the workplace, depending too much on their intuitions at that point of time rather than long term rational thinking.
  5. Hurting our loved ones by using sharp, abusive language knowing fully well that it would hurt them, just to satisfy the irresistible urge to get even when things don’t go as per our expectations.
  6. Can’t resist the temptation of purchasing online using credit cards, falling prey to perceived discounts/sale.

Some people take high pride in themselves, when they say that they don’t keep anything in their minds, whatever comes to their mind, the immediate release. What this actually means is they have very less impulse control and care a damn for others feelings and more engrossed in self – the result of poor self-awareness. These people are proud of their instincts. While impulse control never undermines the advantages of using your sixth sense, these people more often get too carried away. Being impulsive becomes a norm for them rather than an exception. These people say proudly, that they act on their instincts, but actually what it really means is they resort to ‘Knee- jerk’ reactions to events.

One of the commonest forms of less impulse control is the compulsive urge of buying online through Credit cards and possibly getting into the vicious cycle of the debt trap

Some of the signs of poor impulse control are:

  1. Rash
  2. Impatient
  3. Rude
  4. Hot-headed
  5. Unpredictable (fine now, lost after one minute)
  6. Mercurial
  7. Low tolerance for frustration
  8. Making wrong decisions under pressure, quite too often
  9. Spending money unwisely, but being stingy where it is actually required to spend (Penny wise, pound foolish)
  10. Poor interpersonal relationships

Individuals with effective impulse control, in contrast, have the capacity to think first rather than reacting immediately. This allows them to be at peace to think about various options available so that their actions and decisions are well informed and rational. They can maintain composure and always behave responsibly. Plans which are made after due reflection have a greater chance of meeting a success. People who take pause to consider the facts and don’t respond immediately to any idea or thought that pops up in their mind are more likely to achieve their goals. People with good impulse control calmly plan their words and deeds and remain unperturbed even in trying situations.

Impulse control brings with it the capacity to maintain delicate relationships or at least have the capacity to reconcile relationships which may have gone sour, and dealing with an agitated customer. People having sound impulse control have the better listening ability.

Impulsive behaviour is like an intoxication which gives a high for some time, quick release from thinking, however painful in the long-run. This behaviour is like shoppers’ gate crashing for the limited period sale and buying all those things which they may not require at all, just because there is a sale going on.

How can you have Impulse Control?

Now let’s consider some impulse controlling strategies:

  1. Reflection: Why you find yourself out of control? One of the ways to find is to reflect on the self. Studies have found out that there are only two reasons people lose their impulse control viz. Fear and an unmet need or desire.  We become impulsive if there is threat to our jobs, fear of losing loved one to others

(possessiveness), fear of losing control and self-importance, being alone, uncertainty, physical pain, failures, rejection or unmet desires for- wealth, happiness, success, power, position, security, approval, growth, pleasure etc. Once you understand the fear or desire that is driving into a strong reaction, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this situation really a threat? Our knee-jerk reaction may be over-reaction. Is the intensity of your reaction really required?
  2. What would be the best action in this situation? – Maybe, you can move away from the spot where emotions are high. Tell all the people concerned that, you are feeling overwhelmed by the situation and would like to take a break and get isolated for a while. Maybe go out for a walk, drink cold water, go running, apologizing and then coming back to listen with a calm mind, do anything to change the state.
  • Reframing: We need to get out of our habits of jumping onto conclusions/labelling or judging people. For this, we need to develop the habit of reframing our thoughts and our opinions about people and situations.

E.g. 1. ‘You will never be able to do any job properly’ becomes- ‘with more practice, I am sure you can ace in this activity/task’. Or ‘You are very stubborn’ becomes after reframing- ‘I like your resoluteness, but can we also try this….’ Or ‘That’s it, I cannot take it anymore’, becomes ‘I need to take a break to get over my frustrations so that I am able to do a good job’. Or ‘No one cares what I think around here becomes ‘My ideas are not always chosen. Let me get feedback on that last idea.’

  • Rehearsal: Now that you have taken time to reflect and thought of an action that is productive in mind, it is worthwhile rehearsing the actions and behaviours before the actual anticipated event so that you can handle your emotions and impulses in a much better manner.

After identifying individuals, places or repeatedly happening events where you lose your impulse control, rehearsal can be used to be prepared. Say for example, one of your colleagues has a habit of constantly cribbing and complaining about people, things and in general everything. You know that his/her behaviour puts you off, the moment he/she comes to you may start asking them about the pending work, give them more work (to keep them busy) with deadlines. Motivate such people to come out of their blame, criticize and shame tendencies to focus more on work. If you have already done this home-work you can get more used to handling your impulses in a much better manner.


The old saying ‘Look before you leap’ cannot be apt anywhere else more than it is for Impulse control. People with this healthy habit consider before they act and are able to resist and delay the urge to react in knee-jerk fashion. Those who find it difficult to control or at least delay their impulses are always stressful, find difficulty in controlling anger and exhibit unpredictable behaviours. Most importantly, these people cannot maintain cordial and meaningful relationships with anyone, not even with their very close family members.

11 thoughts on “Emotional Intelligence- Impulse Control”

    1. Thanks, Supriya. Yes, there are various ways in which you can manage impulse control and Pranayam is one of them. Other one is more self-awareness(which you get through Pranayam) and more empathy.

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