Wednesday, March 28, 2007


by Tory Butterworth

Here's one of the comments I got on my last blog, "Why People Do Bad Things." (Thanks, Annette!)

". . . there was one guy who my husband and I thought was a friend. Very charming, very personable, BUT he then started luring other friends into money schemes in which he always came out ahead, but others lost their life savings . . .

The end result: he ended up going to prison for shooting an employee in the back during a fit of rage."

As a psychotherapist, what stands out for me in this example is the concept of impulsivity.

Impulsive people do things, well, on impulse, in the spur of the moment, without thinking ahead to their consequences. As little kids and then teenagers, most of us were more impulsive than we are now. The school of hard knocks teaches us the expected consequences of our behaviors (e.g. if I get drunk, I'll have a hangover the next day.) As adults, most of us think things through before making major decisions, sometimes too much. Even when we'd rather not, we imagine the horrible consequences of everyday actions (e.g. slicing our hand rather than the bread with a sharp knife) and hopefully take steps to prevent future physical or psychological injury.

But some people just never seem to learn. I have clients like that. My more impulsive clients are, like the "villain" mentioned here, charming, spontaneous, personable. However, it is a struggle to help them develop what therapists call, "psychological insight," the ability to understand why they keep repeating the same costly behavior.

Did the villain above, while he was raising the gun on his employee, think, "Well, if I do shoot him, I'm likely to end up in jail for many miserable years?" Probably not. He acted in the moment, and may still be suffering the consequences.

Most impulsive people have certain areas of their life that they are impulsive in, and others they are not. So, some impulsive people tend to get involved in physical risks (e.g. extreme sports), others sexual risks, others financial risks, and still others risks of violent behavior.

As an author, if you have chosen an impulsive villain, you'll need to both establish that this kind of risk-taking is in his or her character, as well as the specific precipitating events that lead the risk-taking to get out of hand.

Any of you know chronically impulsive people? Where do they get themselves in trouble?


Judy Schneider said...

This is a great post, Tory, packed with useful information. Thanks so much! I love the connection you've drawn between impuslive people and risky behavior. I'm sure you'll be presenting even more interesting observations and conclusions during your talk at the Pennwriters Conference in May. I'm looking forward to it!

But now, I must rush off and tweak my villain's profile. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Tory. While I'm not an impulsive person, I'm trying to make my characers (especially my villain) impulsive, which is tricky. I'm also looking forward to your talk at Pennwriters.

Nancy said...

Teenage boys. Impulsive and risky behavior results. Most of the grow out of it, though. Great blog, Tory!