Budget tips

Impulse spending, neuroscience explains

Why actions are driven by emotion

Neuroscientists have discovered that it takes about 4 milliseconds for a sensation to produce an emotional reaction in the amygdala. It takes about 10 milliseconds for the rational parts of the brain to respond. Instinct  dominates the mind before reason can act.

The amygdale is one of the older parts of the brain. It governs the emotional and instinctive responses. It processes information in a rough and ready way, producing the instinctive and short term responses of an animal.

The amygdale selects the basic instinctive response of fight, flight, eat, procreate or disregard. The amygdale generates the physiological responses appropriate to the instinctive response. The body and mind are primed for action, action shaped by primitive instinctive responses.

If the reaction is to fight, we lose compassion for our deemed enemy. Our thoughts become aggressive and hostile. We assume our deemed adversary has malicious intentions and interpret his behaviors as malicious. This is readily observable in daily life when people “lose their tempers”. Our perceptions are biased and very short term due to the power of our instinctive responses.

Acting with reason

Instinctive responses have dominated the mind and body in that 6 millisecond lag. The newer and rational parts of the brain are getting information that is heavily biased by emotion. That is the basic explanation of so much human action is driven by emotion with a veneer of rationalization. We thus tend to find rational explanations for something we are doing for emotional reasons. We rapidly form a first impression that is difficult to change.

We notice that it is difficult to reason with others when they are emotional. If we are frank with ourselves, we will readily concede that others have difficulties reasoning with us when we are emotional.


We must then go on to concede that we have difficulty reasoning with ourselves when are emotional. We rationalize our behaviors and accept our own excuses too readily. We jump to conclusions and are biased by the emotional predispositions created by the faster response of the amydala.  We must recognize this and take time to make any decisions that matter. Enough time to allow our emotional reactions to subside so that reason may gain the mastery.

That, in a nutshell, was the neurobiological basis of why we do things such as buying things we neither want nor need on impulse.

What are your thoughts?


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