Book review - The Impulse Factor: Why some of us play it safe and others risk it all, by Nick Tasler

Nick Tasler's engaging book is full of lively anecdote, but it's a motivational read rather than science, says Adrian Atkinson.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

The Impulse Factor: Why some of us play it safe and others risk it all
Nick Tasler
Simon & Schuster

Nick Tasler has produced an entertaining set of stories exemplifying human irrationality. His writing style is lively, engaging and infused with a multitude of interesting facts: Bill Gates was a manic speed driver; St Francis of Assisi gave the best parties; mudslinging in American politics was invented in 1828...

He tries to connect all these stories with one concept - that of 'Impulsivity' and its alter ego 'Playing it Safe'. This is offered as an explanation of why some people take risky decisions and others do not. Or perhaps more subtly: what are the conditions that allow us to identify the people who will make risky decisions and those who will make risk-averse decisions?

On the face of it, however, Tasler's stories are too varied and broad to be connected by one concept. The difference between the rash actions of a 20-year-old snowboarder precipitating an avalanche that killed him and his friend and the measured conscientiousness of a New York fire-fighter determined to do his duty on 9/11 seem at opposite ends of the decision-making spectrum, but both are labelled as 'impulsive'.

Tasler's ventures into neurophysiology could be called speculation rather than fact. He tells us that there is a gene that leads individuals to behave in risky ways. He follows this with various stories of impulsive behaviour, concluding: 'We don't know whether Bill Gates (and others)... carry the novelty seeking gene, their impulsive behaviour is certainly in line with what we know about the gene.' This kind of argument is known as 'victory by definition'.

Tasler adds various shades to the initial concept, namely: functional impulsivity (when being impulsive pays off); dysfunctional impulsivity (when it doesn't); and conditional impulsivity (when normally rational people act irrationally). The question he claims to answer is 'Why did they do it?'

If we know we make the decisions that we do because we tend to be impulsive, so what? The Impulse Factor is introduced as a self-help book: 'Our only hope for improving the quality of our decisions is to look at how people naturally differ from one another and how each situation can introduce its own set of influential conditions.' Agreed, and much careful and painstaking work has been done in this area - Janis on group-think, Sherriff on social pressure, etc. Tasler goes on to say that 'by knowing each of our specific decision making tendencies we can exercise control over them'. How to do this is described in the last chapter, 'Striking a balance'. This recommends moderating the impulsive character of some decisions with more cautious reflection.

Tasler's book is well researched regarding the behaviour of some prominent and not-so-prominent people. He ranges speculatively over animal studies, evolutionary theories and neurophysiology as well as psychology, and includes fascinating anecdotes and speculation about the causes of human behaviour. It adds little depth to our current knowledge of decision-making but is an entertaining, lively and enjoyable read.

Every copy of the book allows free access to the $40 online 'Impulse Factor Test', which 'reveals where you stand on the four critical elements of decision making'.

The book also provides a 'Technical manual for the Impulse Factor Test' but it is not very technical and leaves a psychometrician like myself unimpressed. Many technical aspects of the test description need resolving. One of the main problems is that Tasler accepts that the test is likely to be based in personality but seems not to have related it to existing personality tests.

The fundamental problem with the book is that the vast amount of research on the psychology of decision-making is ignored. We know that impulsivity decreases with age, that both intellectual ability and personal values play a large part in making appropriate decisions, and that there are many other major factors.

The Impulse Factor seeks to shoehorn a highly complex area into one dimension. When we try to explain so much with something called Impulsivity, we end up explaining little. I was unable to take the 'Impulse Factor Test', but it may provide some insight into a person's style of decision-making. The book has a very engaging style, like that of a motivational speaker. But, as with the latter, don't be swept away by the rhetoric.

Dr Adrian Atkinson is chairman of Human Factors International

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