Are You Impulsive? A New Study Says You Might be Selfish

selfish girl
Science & Medicine

Do you regularly drop $200 on shoes? Is your spouse mad at you for buying a sports car? Do you make 5 trips to the all-you-can-eat buffet? Well, you’re probably selfish. At least, that’s what a new study says.

Neuroscience researchers from the University of Zurich say if you’re the impulsive type, you probably have difficulty walking in somebody else’s shoes, figuratively speaking. Impulse control, they claim, is rooted in a region of the brain called the posterior tempero-parietal junction (pTPJ), which helps you better see the world from someone else’s perspective. [1]

Co-author Christian Ruff says:

“It’s not that surprising when you consider you can see yourself as another person in the future.”

In other words, self-control isn’t a matter of being able to resist an immediate temptation through “impulse control processes that dampen the desire”; rather, the mechanism in a particular region of the brain promotes self-control by making you consider how your future self will feel — “by allowing a focus on the perspective of one’s future needs.” [2]

That money would be nice now, but won’t you be glad you later on that you helped out a friend?

So how did Ruff and his colleagues figure all of this out? They offered study participants between $75 and $155 they could keep or $150 they could split, with either loved ones or strangers. (As you might have guessed, most people were willing to share with people they cared about, but not with strangers.)

However, when the team “silenced” pTPJ, and offered participants a small, variable sum upfront, or a larger amount in 3-18 months, suddenly the participants became less charitable and more impatient with waiting.

Again, that money would be nice now, but won’t your future self be glad you held out for the bigger sum?

Participants also struggled to perceive objects from an avatar’s point of view, and those who had the hardest time also had less self-control and were stingier with others. [3]

Here’s where it gets almost existential. According a 2009 study, delaying gratification was shown to require that one took the perspective of his or her future self, and many people view their future self as a complete stranger, it seems.

OK, so if you lack self-control to some extent (and believe me, I do), how do you fix the problem? The answer: start being more focused on others. Yup, stop being so dang selfish.

This is a pretty good life lesson right now, isn’t it? Nowhere is impulsiveness and self-centeredness more apparent than on social media. Hopefully, some of that will go away November 9. Instead of fighting on Facebook about politics, maybe go out and do something nice for someone else? You might be less likely to post that nasty meme you have stashed away on your smartphone that makes your mother cry and your cousin ignore you at Thanksgiving.

Hey, I’m right there with you. No judgement.

Here’s how Ruff puts it:

“The main implication of our finding is we shouldn’t just focus on interventions that control our impulses, but we should perhaps think about interventions that actually foster our ability to take the perspective of others.”

By the way, this applies to addiction, too. Addicts are very much prone to impulsivity. Ruff says:

“If we were trying to really speculate wildly, you could say perhaps there is a bit of a vicious circle.

Once you actually start becoming addicted, you do focus a lot more on your own impulses and feelings and disengage from the social world. This disengagement from having the focus and perspective of others makes it harder to control yourself.”

It makes sense now, from a scientific perspective, why recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are so vital to helping recovering addicts stay clean, and why recovery programs and groups emphasize service to others.

So, go give someone $100! Or, at least, hold a door open for somebody.


[1] Newser

[2] Medical Daily

[3] LiveScience