Sometimes it's fine to not think too much about your choices and act on impulse, like when you grab the red pen instead of the blue. But impulsivity isn't always your friend, like when you blurt out information at the wrong time. As Sara Miller of Live Science reports, the key to handling your impulsivity for smarter decision making could be as simple as observing others and being aware of what's around you.

Two studies, one result

Led by Tracy Cheung, researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands conducted two studies related to food. They assumed through these studies that, if you're impulsive, you're more likely to use heuristics, or "shortcut" methods that allow you to solve a problem fast.

In the first study, approximately 200 people took a survey about how hungry they were. Researchers then showed them several pairs of foods, with each pair including a healthy and an unhealthy choice. The researchers also showed about half of the participants a graph that revealed that "previous participants" had opted for the healthy choice. In the second study, the researchers took basically the same approach, but they conducted the survey and presented their chart in the real-world setting of a cafeteria, where people actually were going to eat. In both cases, people used what they thought other individuals had done as the heuristic. They followed what the majority did.

At its core, Cheung's research exemplifies the psychological idea that people look at their environment and the choices of others to determine what an appropriate decision is. They do this for a variety of reasons:

  • They want approval from the group and to avoid isolation;
  • they associate choice popularity with ethics, assuming that the more popular choice has greater odds of being "right"; and
  • they want to save time and energy and make the decision as hassle free as possible.

This concept applies well outside food, and Cheung asserts that installing heuristics might be an effective strategy to control impulsivity and guide people to better choices.

Creating the path you want

Cheung's studies mean that, as an individual, you might be able to use environmental or social cues to find your way in the workplace. For example, suppose you have a more introverted personality. If you see that everyone on your team has signed up for a volunteer opportunity, you can assume that, for whatever reason, they are assigning value to that opportunity. Understanding their position could encourage you to avoid your impulse to decline the opportunity, leading you to sign up, too. Your decision and participation could help the team see you as more willing, open-minded or caring.

You also can use the research as a leader. For example, take that volunteer opportunity again. If you really want employees to get on board, having all your managers promoting the event will leave a stronger impression than if just one or two do. Similarly, if there's a conflict affecting a large percentage of the workforce, you can take the tendency to follow others and look for cues into consideration as you try to resolve the problem. And visual cues around the office can guide workers in practical ways, too, such as leaving plenty of recycling bins around the copier.

All this said, you're not a lemming, and you don't have to conform all the time. But when you are aware of what's around you and what others are doing, you have the power to weigh those observations against your instincts. Taking the time to make that comparison in a fully conscious way might translate to far less regret and, ultimately, a happier and more successful you.