I went to elementary school not far from Stanford University. Occasionally students from the university would come to our school and use the students as guinea pigs for psychology research. I remember one of the experiments consisted of showing me two photos of kids and asking which one I would like to be friends with (“Because he looks more interesting” was my reply when one time I was asked why I picked one kid over another).

Other experiments included having us brush our teeth with very gritty toothpaste and recording our reactions. Another had us watch a segment of a movie then answering questions afterwards. The most famous Stanford psychology test was the Marshmallow Test, done in the 1970s (I wasn’t part of this experiment).

The Marshmallow Test consisted of presenting a child with a marshmallow and telling the child that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow that later they would get two marshmallows. Whether or not the child ate the first marshmallow determined the child’s impulse control/delayed gratification.

Follow up studies found that children who were able to delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow were described to be more competent as teenagers and had higher SAT scores. (Recent studies have refuted these findings. Read Reinterpreting the Marshmallow Test here.)

Impulse Control is an important Emotional Intelligence skill that helps us to resist or delay our impulses, drives, and temptations to act. It is our ability to accept our aggressive impulses, being composed, and controlling our irresponsible behavior.

When we lack impulse control we may have low frustration tolerance, anger management problems, abusiveness, and explosive or unpredictable behavior. Impulsive people have interpersonal relationships marked by shallowness, volatility, fickleness, impatience, fear, and intimidation. When under pressure, these people make poor decisions.

Having Impulse Control doesn’t mean that we’re “anal”; that is, being compulsive or rigid. We still need to be flexible and spontaneous. What Impulse Control does mean is that we resist or delay our impulses, drives, or temptation until we’ve had time to think things through.

One way to control our impulses is to use the ABCDE process (see more about this process here). Our drives, impulses, and temptations are the Activating event (the “A” in the process). Consequences (the “C”) is acting impulsively because we have failed to stop, think, and check our Beliefs (the “B”).

For example, if we have the temptation to eat junk food (the “A” – Activating Event) we may have the Belief that we deserve it, that it’s okay just this one time, or that we will burn it off by spending more time exercising. Such beliefs will lead us to giving in to our temptation and eating the junk food (the “C” – Consequence).

But we can rewire our thinking and change our Belief to another such as eating junk food will adversely affect our health, that eating one piece of junk food will snowball into eating lots of junk food, or that eating junk food will make us fat. By changing our Beliefs we change the Consequences.

Other Emotional Intelligence skills help us in controlling our impulses. Reality Testing lets us see when we are being impulsive or giving in to our temptations. Emotional Self-Awareness allows us to examine the underlying emotions that drive our impulses.

Empathy also plays an important role in Impulse Control, especially in regards to violence, abuse, frustration, and impatience. If you are first able to put yourself in another’s shoes, you are better able to see and care about how your impulses affect others.

It doesn’t matter if you were able to control your impulses as a preschooler and not eat the marshmallow since you can still learn the skill now. Use the ABCDE process to examine your impulses and work on developing your other Emotional Intelligence skills. Remember, success is not a final destination but a continuing journey.

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