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Why We Do What We Do Without Knowing Why We Do It

David Lewis

ISBN 9780674725492

Publication date: 10/01/2013

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“It seemed like a good idea at the time” has been the limp excuse of many a person whose actions later became cause for regret. Although we see ourselves as rational beings, we are far more likely to act according to impulse than logic. Nor is this always a bad thing, David Lewis suggests. Impulse explores all the mystifying things people do despite knowing better, from blurting out indiscretions to falling for totally incompatible romantic partners. Informed by the latest research in neuropsychology, this eye-opening account explains why snap decisions so often govern—and occasionally enrich—our lives.

Lewis investigates two kinds of thinking that occur in the brain: one slow and reflective, the other fast but prone to error. In ways we cannot control, our mental tracks switch from the first type to the second, resulting in impulsive actions. This happens in that instant when the eyes of lovers meet, when the hand reaches for a must-have product that the pocketbook can’t afford, when “I really shouldn’t” have another drink becomes “Oh why not?” In these moments, our rational awareness takes a back seat.

While we inevitably lose self-control on occasion, Lewis says, this can also be desirable, leading to experiences we cherish but would certainly miss if we were always logical. Less about the ideal reasoning we fail to use than the flawed reasoning we manage to get by with, Impulse proves there is more to a healthy mental life than being as coolly calculating as possible.


  • Lewis…examines the role impulses play in falling in love, overeating, and spending, as well as violent and destructive behavior. His conclusions are sobering: most decisions are subliminal, self-control is influenced by outside factors such as genetics, and free will is an illusion necessary to maintain social order… Overall, a fascinating, readable explanation of scientific research on impulses and consciousness.

    —Lucille M. Boone, Library Journal


  • David Lewis is Founder and Director of Research at Mindlab International at the Sussex Innovation Centre.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press