Is impulsiveness a desirable characteristic? I am the categorical thinker- I like to think about things before I do them. However, as part of that thought process it’s important to be able to suspend thought when necessary. As such, whether or not impulsiveness has a place in the repertoire of the contemporary rationalist is an interesting question. Firstly, we need to look at where impulsiveness is typically used. Impulsiveness is often associated with interpersonal exchanges, with social people and people who enjoy parties. It is strongly disassociated with business or financial decisions, with some exceptions such as small purchases and gambling. So while common sense thought acknowledges that impulsive action is improper for weighty decisions, for more trivial matters it helps a great deal.
Before we get into the topic, we need to make some distinctions. There is impulsiveness and then there is recklessness. The way I conceive of the terms, impulsiveness is thinking of an action and allowing it to proceed into reality without too much analysis. Recklessness, on the other hand, implies a full knowledge of the action beforehand, but doing it in spite of your analysis that it is foolhardy. I will talk about both, but first let’s cover the less complex issue of impulsiveness. In social situations, impulsiveness is a great aid because you can’t think too much about what you’re going to say. There are a large number of very smart people who have difficulty in social situations because they don’t realize that their strategy for dealing with reality is not universally applicable- it needs to be changed to fit their needs of the moment. When I was a kid I was like this. I have since learned to pragmatically and completely apply rationality and can piece together the solution to such puzzles. Basically, if you think too much about what you’re going to say, you give an unnatural amount of weight to when you do speak. So unless you’re able to spout endless amounts of deep, profound thoughts, invariably you’re going to be putting a lot of weight behind fairly trivial statements, and the inconsistency comes across as awkward. Impulsiveness will decrease the weight of what you’re saying and give it a sort of throwaway characteristic which helps you in a number of ways. Firstly, if it doesn’t work out, nobody really notices, and you can keep going with whatever suits you. Secondly, it puts you in a more dominant position of just saying whatever you feel like saying. You aren’t vetting your thoughts to check if the rest of the group will approve. This brings us to the second flaw in the introverted thinker’s social rut, the fact that they are attempting to apply thought to the situation to do better and it shows very obviously to the rest of the group. This is a complex point that I can’t encapsulate in one post, but basically any attempt to earn approval guarantees denial of it in direct proportion to the effort spent. The introverted thinker’s goal is to earn approval, and his model for deciding what to say is, logically, fixed upon achieving that goal. While their intentions are good their entire approach has so many incorrect assumptions they aren’t even capable of recognizing the fact that their whole paradigm is nonfunctional. They just dive right back in with a “it must work” attitude instead of reworking from first principles.
Impulsiveness is also a pragmatic tool to be used liberally in situations of doubt. When it is clear that hesitation will cost more than immediate action, you have to go. When I was younger I had this model of “going for help” which essentially contained the idea that the concept of help was distant. So “going for help” would take a long time, and there was a significant chance that the window would close for whatever the situation was. So my primary course would have been to just go do it myself. This is an incorrect application of impulsiveness because of incorrect information. A proper application of impulsiveness might be, for example, you are handed a test with 100 4-answer multiple choice questions, you have 100 seconds. Now there is no way you could conceivably cover 25% of the questions if you legitimately tried to answer them. However, if you guess randomly you have a 1 in 4 chance on each question and so over 100 questions you should get 25 correct. This is clearly your best strategy given the rules of the game. You concluded that the best strategy is to suspend rational inquiry into each question because it is simply not worthwhile. You wouldn’t work for an hour to earn a penny, and you wouldn’t think for X seconds per question.
The other fallacy that makes impulsiveness distasteful to many is the idea that the answer actually matters. With our test example, you don’t actually care what the answer to any given question is, you have all the information needed to create a sufficient strategy. For social impulsiveness, the simple fact of the matter is that your actions really don’t matter that much. Provided you don’t do anything truly inappropriate, at least. The, and I use this term very reluctantly, “antisocial nerds” ascribe a great deal of value to their interactions and to what each party says. This is a misunderstanding of the nature of the communication. The actual content is unimportant. Nobody cares if you’re talking about the weather, cars, or anything else. True, this doesn’t make logical sense, and in a perfect world people would communicate usefully instead of feeding their egos by the fact that they’re talking to people. Most of the “extroverts” are pleased by the fact that they’re talking to people, and are anxious when seen by themselves- this mentality is communicated to introverts and affects them quite adversely because they prefer to be alone for some part of their day and they may believe that there is something wrong with them. Don’t buy it, please. The people who *need* to be around others to validate themselves are the unstable ones. It’s similar to the way men and women treat sex. Men are usually sexually insensitive and are more pleased the by fact that they are having sex than they are enjoying the sex itself. They are usually seeking validation from society instead of their own enjoyment. Of course, most women can pick this up immediately and they would prefer not to be some boy’s tool to self-validation. Women, you aren’t off the hook, you do the same thing, but not with sex. Instead, you get validation from men paying attention to you while others are watching. Don’t get me wrong, it goes both ways. Some women perceive that they get validation from having lots of sex, and some men get validation by attention from women, they’re just not as common as the other way around. Impulsiveness as a concept is often bundled with these behaviors which, although nobody really knows why, are widely believed to be “creepy.” That’s just not the case.
Now, recklessness is a whole ‘nother can of worms. Doing something that you know to be crazy, or doing something because it’s crazy, has a completely different backing behind it. Most reckless people do it because the cost of the reckless action is balanced or outweighed by the enjoyment or rush they get from it. This is the same mechanism that makes skydiving fun, even though skydiving is actually reasonably safe. If you had a significant chance of dying you wouldn’t be able to sell it to people as a recreational activity without some serious social pressure backing it up. Ziplining is another example- there has only ever been one zipline death, and that was under suspicious circumstances. But we perceive it to be dangerous and enjoy a rush from it. There is, however, a time when outright reckless behavior can be a rational course of action. Usually these circumstances fall into two categories though, 1) you’re trying to make other people/agents believe you’re reckless, or 2) direct and/or thought-out strategies can be expected or countered easily or are otherwise rendered ineffective.
Category 1 is the more common of the two and can potentially occur in any game or strategic situation. Essentially your strategy is to do something stupid in the hope that your enemy will misjudge your tactics or your capabilities, enabling you to take greater advantage later on, or in the long run. In poker, it is sometimes a good thing to get caught bluffing. That way, next time you have a monster hand your opponent might believe you’re actually bluffing. If you’ve never been caught bluffing before, they would be much more likely to believe you actually have a hand and fold. Obviously, if you get caught bluffing enough times that it seriously impacts your pile of chips, you’re just bad at poker, but a single tactical loss can be later utilized to strategic advantage.
Category 2 is much more interesting. Let’s take a game like Total Annihilation. By the way, TA: Spring is totally free and open source, and it’s easily a contender for the greatest strategy game ever made. Although it’s not fundamentally that complicated, there is no in-game help so it can be very confusing for new players. Feel free to log in to the multiplayer server and just ask for a training game- after one or two you should be up to speed and ready to play for real. Anyway, in Total Annihilation, at least the more standard-fare mods, there are dozens if not hundreds, there are huge weapons that deal death massively and can pose a serious threat in and of themselves to the opposition. Things like nukes, long range artillery, giant experimental robots (and you can FPS any unit, bwahaha!!), etc. etc. Anyway, the construction of one such piece can actually end the game if it stands uncountered or undestroyed for too long. However each has a counter, which range in effectiveness. For example, antinuke protects a fairly large area, but if you throw two nukes at it, it can only handle one. Shields protect against long range artillery but they have a small area and cost a lot to run, and so on. Now, a calculating player can probably figure out the ideal choice for the opponent in a given situation. If he’s focusing all his stuff in one place, he may as well get both shields and anti-nuke, but the other player(s) could then steal the whole map. If he goes for the whole map himself, the other player would probably get air units to attack his sparsely defended holdings. If he consolidates in a few carefully chosen locations, nukes might be in order, and so on.
This is where we get to the recklessness-as-tool element. Potentially the greatest advantage in complex games of strategy is surprise, or doing something that the enemy did not expect and must react to. Ideally the enemy has limited ability to reorganize to counter the new threat. This is true of real-world military action- there are issues with communication, chaos, and a host of others that make reacting quickly difficult. The more resources sunk into the threat, the more resources that will be necessary to counter it (assuming that the attacker isn’t just stupid). There would have been no point in the Manhattan Project, for example, if the enemy could put horseshoes on all their doors to render nuclear weapons impotent, and it would never have been started. Now let’s say we have a game of TA where it would be obvious that hitting the enemy with a nuke would be the best course of action. Of course, this same idea will have occurred to the person about to get nuked. OK, so then big guns are the best strategy. Except that your opponent can think of that, too, because he might guess you’re not going to use nukes because it’s too obvious. And so on through all the possible options, whatever one can think of, the other can too. Whatever strategy you might use to maximize your utility can be equally though of by the enemy. We are dealing with a perfectly constrained system.
But what if we de-constrained the system just a little bit. We remove the rule that says we must maximize value. Now we could feasibly do anything up to and including nuking ourselves. So we need a different rule in its place because now we’re working with a screwed up and dysfunctional model. This is where the trick is. Because you might still have a meta-model of maximizing value in your selection of an alternate strategy, meaning you will be just as predictable, albeit through the use of a much more complex algorithm. No, you have to truly discard the maximizing value paradigm in order to get the additional value from surprise, and the trick is to not lose too much to put you behind after your surprise factor is added in.
My problem here is I’m trying to reduce a complex and multi-dimensional strategic game to a single aspect under consideration. My other problem is that many of you will have never heard of Total Annihilation. The same idea applies to more or less any other sufficiently complex game, such as Starcraft, but value is too directly transformed in most modern games to make such meta-strategies significant. If you have more troops, or the right kind of troops, you win. If you’re behind, you’re behind and there’s not a lot you can do about it other than try harder in doing what you were doing before. So while surprise might give you some advantage, it’s probably not going to be worth enough to be behind to get it. Careful application of force certainly helps, but it’s not as vital as in Supreme Commander or Total Annihilation. No, I’m not harping on the games in question, I’m not demanding that you must play them, I’m just sharing my particular taste in video games.
Impulsiveness once again. I seem to be digressing more and more these days. Basically what I’m trying to communicate is that in some situations (games to use the theoretical term) the act of analysis must be take into consideration in your planning. How much time can you spend analyzing, what should you be analyzing, how is the enemy thinking, etc. etc. Once you bring the act of thinking into the purview of strategic considerations, impulsiveness is one option for a viable strategy that just does not occur to someone who cannot conceive of the act of thinking as a strategic concern. They implicitly believe that life is a game of perfect information with unlimited time for a given move. The truth is, you’re acting when you decide what to do, and that act will have an effect on the world and on the results you get. There are lots of proverbs about hesitation, but they don’t seem to extend to when to think and when to just act. On the whole, I think most people have an implicit understanding of this type of decision making- it comes pre-packaged with the HBrain OS, but they haven’t really considered exactly what it is they’re doing on a consistent basis. I’m just here to point it out so those who haven’t can read about it and be provoked into it.