Impulse by David Lewis (book review).

  Are you curious as to why some of the decisions or choices you make aren’t backed up by intelligent thinking and deliberation first, then maybe you’ll find some of the answers here with David Lewis’ book ‘Impulse’. The sub-title carries the usual more descriptive meaning: ‘Why We Do What We Do Without Knowing Why We Do It’.

I suspect what must worry people more is whether or not the impulse choice is the best one and if it is, why fret and just rely on instinct? Fortunately, most people do like to consider some of the choices they make, although reading this book I think you will become concerned about this as it also gives a means to be manipulated by other people and your choices aren’t as free as you’re led to believe.


Throughout this book, Lewis gives many examples both from real life and things to test for yourself. I like the one where a bus driver unable to brake when approaching a damaged bridge elects to speed up and take the chance that his vehicle can bridge the gap. Saying that, I’m not entirely sure if that was a totally impulse action, mostly because he had nothing to lose by trying it and actually succeeded in bridging the gap. Maybe he was a fan of the first ‘Speed’ film. This book is, after all, an examination of how we think and, under stress situations, we can think awfully fast without necessarily verbalising the choices in our heads. That means where does the gray area between non-verbal thinking and impulse decisions lie?

I did find it interesting that Lewis points out we have twenty-one not five senses, although I suspect how the information is interpreted means most of them aren’t seen in isolation like the top five are. Oddly, he only identifies twelve of them so no idea where my natural empathy exists. Looking at the list on-line, it becomes apparent that there are only nine, with most of them having separate divisions which I’m not altogether sure makes them that many.

We all know about how supermarkets using aromas, like the smell of bread, to ensure you buy something but I never realised that linen or coconut oil in travel agencies was used as well to coax a holiday impulse. Then again, I’ve never been in a travel agency.

Your impulses can be controlled by the look of your food. I can see having fudge looking traditional or like dog turd would be a great party trick. This also extends to various illusions in how reactive you are before your brain consciously kicks in to work out what is going on. There are a lot of examples here and even with the Kaniza triangle illusion, I’m surprised no one has pointed out that the brain thinks there is a white triangle on a white piece of paper. The illusion I learnt the most from is it is shading that can distinguish between a male and female face.

Even more remarkable is the difference in what we see or focus on depends on the culture you are brought up in with the most significant differences between the west and Chinese. I’ve come across this before but I still think it needs further exploration, especially with those who switch countries and the bilingual as to which has the most effect on them.

I did the fingers digit measurement ratio test coming up with an answer of 0.93 which is mid-range. However, my index finger is a little bent because of arthritis which made me change the calculation by dividing the measure up to get the longer length, only to find the same answer came up. So, whatever, by measurement, I’m only supposed to be moderately impulsive.

There is an impulse test but Lewis recommended having a go at the impulsive test through their test on www.impulsive.me.uk website for better accuracy which I tried. I discovered that I’m not impulsive, although I think it doesn’t really take into account my normal hyper-speed or the fact that when I found the right symbol, I didn’t check beyond that. I failed a few of the tests the first time around (you are allowed to try again until you get it right which is part of the test) so I do ponder on what would happen if you just pressed the button on every symbol until the correct one is chosen? Would that signify being totally impulsive or being a total maniac?

The examination of what you find attractive did alarm me a little because I wish Lewis had examined the difference between cultures more. Although Lewis is English, he does cite a lot of American examples suggesting the target audience of this book. Oriental cultures find the petite female form best and the Asian cultures prefer the more voluptuous female shape. Nor does he examine why once wedded and both sexes can go to seed that neither sex objects too much, although that can change when one of them chooses to go on a diet. Saying that, pages 129-131 should be regarded as essential reading as to the myths of partner choice because women are far more choosier than men.

When it comes to eating, the fast food chains have many of you targeted by your impulse eating and wanting more of the sugary foods and in massive quantity and don’t really care that it is sending you to an early grave. At last, there are some advantages of being a Type One Diabetic! I’m not their target feeder. Lewis points out that addiction is not reserved to drug abuse and that food abuse is equally addictive and uses the same means. Think of that the next time the counter clerk offers you more at your favourite food chain and say no to your impulse buy. Again, pages 145-148 should be essential reading it you want to cut back on over-eating or over-drinking. If you really want to eat less, learn to use chopsticks and stop when you’re full and don’t buy super-size meals of anything!

If you want to avoid impulse buying then walk away from the product and have a think first. I find going away and checking the price on the Net first a good way although I found some supermarkets will only offer a good deal on a DVD release for a limited price for too short a time, so check before getting there if you want a good impulse. Lewis covers a lot of supermarket tricks to encourage you to buy more than you intend but the most important thing to do if you want to be economical is don’t deviate from a shopping list.

Although Lewis does not in chapter eleven call ‘The Imitation Impulse’, the herd instinct, that is pretty much what he is describing with his examination of mirror neurons. If ever there was an impulse to copy anything in bad behaviour this is it. From my perspective, euphoria is something people get out of control with far too easily and needs some recognition as to what it is and not be carried away by events.

As you can tell from my comments above, I’ve learnt a lot from this book if only in the way you other people out there react to your impulses. When I became diabetic years ago, I found I had to rein myself in completely. My General Semantics background tends to encourage thinking before doing helped a lot as well so I’m not that surprised that I’m not particularly impulsive. Man is supposed to be a thinking creature although the fact that you are encouraged to be impulsive by others, let alone yourself, when it’s so easy to keep control of yourself means there’s lessons for everyone in this book. I should also point out that those are some of the things I’ve learn. There is a lot more and I suspect there’s plenty that you didn’t know before. Read and look cautiously at others. Knowing how you react gives you the edge. Your impulses will never be the same again.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Random House. 310 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-847-94685-0)
check out website: www.randomhouse.co.uk, www.drdavidlewis.co.uk and www.impulsive.me.uk/


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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