Top Quotes: “The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification” — Paul Roberts


“Studies suggest that heavy online gaming actually alters brain structures involved in decision making and self-control, much as drug and alcohol use does. Emotional development can be delayed or derailed, leaving the player with a sense of self that is incomplete, fragile, and socially disengaged — more id than superego. Or as Hilarie Cash, reSTART cofounder and an expert in online addiction, told me, “We end up being controlled by our impulses.””

The Early 20th Century

By the mid-1920s, most American families not only owned a car, but, because Ford had built his so sturdily, were rarely in the market for another. Sales growth slowed, and Ford’s profits plunged, and he was forced to reduce his output, which cost him some of his precious scale efficiencies and threatened to unravel his entire model. Ford wasn’t alone. Most manufacturers were confronting the same potentially ruinous paradox. In the scramble to achieve Ford-like scale and market share, they had spent billions of dollars on factories and assembly lines and distribution networks and showrooms. But the volumes needed to repay those investments markedly exceeded consumers’ appetites. Ford and his fellow industrialists faced a stark choice: either dramatically reduce output, and write off billions of dollars in investments, or somehow persuade people to use more personal power.

The persuader would turn out to be another carmaker, Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors and Ford’s biggest rival both commercially and philosophically. Where Ford was an austere farmer’s son who shunned ostentatious display, Sloan had been raised in wealth and educated at the best schools, and was accustomed to living in high style. More to our point, where Ford fixated on the practical, nuts-and-bolts aspects of individual mobility, Sloan realized that the key to mass-producing consumer goods was no longer just technology but psychology: making consumers feel comfortable spending their new wages.

Sloan’s psychological strategy came in two stages. First, General Motors offered a radical new service: cheap consumer financing through an in-house bank. At a time when consumer credit was still widely seen as the financial equivalent to opium — Ford considered credit to be immoral, and accepted only cash — Sloan’s move was brash but brilliant. At a stroke, he provided his customers the capacity not only to buy a car sooner (without having to save for it), but also to buy considerably more car. And more car is what Sloan proceeded to sell them. Where traditional manufacturers offered customers few choices Ford made one basic model in one color, blackish green — General Motors brought out a range of options, from the budget Chevrolet to the top-of-the-line Cadillac. GM’s product mix was carefully designed to let motorists choose a car to match their socioeconomic status and then elevate that status by upgrading to the fancier model. Sloan was, in effect, offering his customers, the power to move themselves not just physically but socially — a shrewd proposition at a time when Americans were becoming increasingly status conscious.

Further, Sloan gave consumers the means to go on elevating their status forever. In 1926, General Motors introduced what came to be known as the “annual model change,” or yearly modifications to each model. Some of these changes represented measurable, material improvements, such as better brakes and more reliable transmissions. But most were cosmetic or stylistic and intended to provide an emotional reward — the pleasure of owning the newest car on the block, say, or the thrill of a more powerful engine or some clever new gadget or convenience.”

“Significantly, much of this increased economic equality reflected a continued willingness by government to intervene in the market. Washington was eager to avoid the often-violent labor strife that marked the prewar era. As important, Washington was anxious to advance a “pro-worker” American labor policy that could, in effect, outshine the “workers’ paradise” ostensibly proffered by America’s new geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union. As a result, when unions and companies negotiated, the White House now openly supported generous contracts entitling workers to pensions, medical benefits, and, most important, a share in companies’ productivity gains: for much of the postwar period, union contracts linked wage increases to the yearly growth in industrial productivity. Likewise, the government maintained a top marginal tax rate of 70 to 80 percent, which discouraged companies from returning to the high executive salaries of the Gilded Age.”

“Computers made consumption cheaper, but also a lot more interesting. Computerized assembly lines meant companies could more rapidly shift between products — a single factory could generate many different models, and could upgrade those models more frequently. Computerized supply chains and inventory meant retailers such as Walmart and Target could more easily carry a much wider variety of products. And since greater variety tends to stimulate more purchases, businesses were encouraged to offer still more variety, and so on. Where a 1950s-era supermarket might have sold three thousand different products, or “stock keeping units” (SKUs), ‘ by 1990 the number was ten times as high. (Walmart stores would eventually carry more than one hundred thousand SKUs.)”


“In the early 1970s, a psychologist at Temple University named David Kipnis wanted to know how power affects individual ethics and, in particular, whether power really does corrupt. In a series of experiments, Kipnis had subjects assume the role of “manager” over a group of “employees” in a fictitious work situation. In some cases, Kipnis gave the managers very little power: they were told to use persuasion to get their employees to complete a task. in other cases, the managers had considerable power: they decided whether employees were fired, transferred, or promoted. As the experiments progressed, Kipnis observed how each boss’s behavior changed, and the effects were striking. Whereas bosses without power tended to use what Kipnis called “rational tactics,” such as discussing goals with employees, those with power began to exploit it. They were more likely to use coercive or “strong tactics, such as criticizing employees, making demands, and displaying anger.” They were more dismissive of employees’ performance, and tended to credit themselves for their employees’ success. Powerful bosses were also more likely to keep a psychological distance between themselves and their employees. The results led Kipnis to argue, under his “metamorphic” model of power, that having power so inflates our sense of self that we’re less able to empathize with those lacking power.

Kipnis’s findings focused on the workplace of nearly forty years ago, but he might as well have been describing the culture of aggressive self-promotion that seems so pervasive today. Since Kipnis’s study, research has only bolstered the notion that power can alter our behavior toward others. In dozens of studies, people in possession of some form of power (managerial authority, say, or social status or just plain old wealth) are measurably more likely to violate social norms in the pursuit of self-interest. We’re more apt to be rude, to invade personal space, to use stereotypes, to cheat, and even to break the law. In one now-classic study, University of California-Berkeley psychologist Paul Piff found that “high-status” drivers (those in really nice cars) were nearly four times as likely as low-status drivers to cut off other drivers at an uncontrolled intersection and nearly three times as likely to drive through a crosswalk while a pedestrian was crossing.

One could argue that power doesn’t necessarily lead to anti-social behavior, but rather, that naturally aggressive and self-centered people are simply more likely to become financially and socially powerful. However, researchers have been able to show what strongly looks like a causal effect. Simply by causing a person to feel rich or powerful even temporarily produces more self-centered or aggressive behavior. In 2012, Piff had subjects play a two-person game of Monopoly in which power was intentionally skewed: one player was given a large allotment of cash and the use of both dice, while the other player received only half the cash and could use just one die. Within moments of starting the game, the subjects with more cash and dice (the high-status players) began acting noticeably different. They took up measurably more space at the table than did the low-status subjects. They made less eye contact with the low-status players and took more liberties, such as moving the low-status players’ game pieces for them. When moving their own pieces, high-status players did so far more forcefully, making three times as much noise as low-status subjects. (The testing room was equipped with a decibel meter.) In other words, these temporarily empowered subjects exhibited the same sorts of behavior that researchers observe in people who actually do have power and social status. “We’re putting people in this low-stakes game where we’ve manipulated things — it’s pretty clear to them, pretty transparent what we’ve done,” Piff told me. “And yet, within a few minutes, it crystallizes these roles between people, and gets them to exhibit these patterns of behavior that you normally see in people who actually have high status in everyday life.”

How and why power leads to self-centered behavior involves a complex process, but the basic outlines are fairly well understood. According to psychologist Dacher Keltner, a pioneer in power research, the experience of power and status activates our “approach system,” a neural mechanism motivating our efforts to gratify basic needs, such as sex, social approval, and attention, along with learned needs, such as money. Once triggered, the approach system “moves you forward,” Keltner says. “You just go after things.” What’s more, even as power is making us more aggressive, it is also reducing our sensitivity to other people or to social norms. This mix of more “approach” and less sensitivity, Keltner told me, is quite potent: “Anything that seems rewarding and good, if you’re feeling powerful; you just go after it. If it’s a little bit more of the pie of public goods, or your secretary, or whatever.””

“Few of us need a study to tell us that the rich and powerful often act like assholes. But what makes this link between power and solipsism so compelling — and so fundamental to the larger idea of the Impulse Society — is that it helps explain why the aggressive promotion of self-interest has become a hallmark at all levels of society, even instances where our real power is actually declining. For the truth is, for more and more of us, the tangible, durable, authentic kind of personal power that characterized life in the postwar period (rising incomes, an engaged gov- ernment, a more secure sense of community) is seriously lacking today. But the patterns of the Impulse Society compensate for that lack in many ways. Culturally, the support for the pursuit of individual self-interest that surged in the 1980s seems even stronger today, which means that whatever tangible powers we do retain can be applied, guilt free, toward aggressive self-promotion. Meanwhile, the consumer marketplace has continued to crank out tools to make aggressive self-promotion not only easier and more efficient, but more likely.”

“Not only do SUV drivers tend to drive faster and experience above-average accident rates, but their vehicles’ size, weight, and configuration mean those accidents wreak more damage. Studies show that although driving an SUV substantially lowers your own chances of injury in an accident, it doubles the likelihood that the people you hit will be injured or killed. Yet this collision inequality is arguably part of the appeal. The aggressive mien of the SUV is all part of the industry’s efforts to reach what Clotaire Rapaille, a marketing specialist who worked closely with Detroit, calls “the reptilian brain,” the set of ancient neural programs that seek to maximize each individual’s “survival and reproduction.” The reptilian brain doesn’t care about the so-called external costs of a big SUV, such as poor fuel economy or extra emissions, and it certainly doesn’t care about the safety of other motorists. Rather, to the reptilian brain, every stranger is a potential criminal and every other motorist a potential adversary. As Rapaille told Bradsher in a moment of appalling candor, “The reptilian mind says, ‘If there’s a crash, I want the other guy to die.’””

Personalization and Novelty

“The bigger risks in our rush to personalize are subtler: the more we retreat into self-made experiences and lifestyles, the harder it becomes to engage in what is not familiar or personalized. And the brute fact is that some of the most important things in life, and certainly most of the biggest challenges we face as a society, are anything but personal or personalizable. Rather, they are generic, collective, and often unpleasant, requiring patience, a tolerance for the unfamiliar, and a willingness to compromise and even sacrifice. In short, the challenges we face require us to confront the very irritations and inefficiencies that our desire-driven, efficiency-obsessed Impulse Society has persuaded us we shouldn’t have to deal with.”

“Whenever we click, we’re rewarded with something new — a text, picture, or some other digital object — and that novelty (and the associated neurotransmitters) soon becomes as important as the information content of the object itself. The digital environment, writes Carr, “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

On top of this, our hunger for more novelty interferes with our comprehension of the data we’re consuming. Because the act of retrieving a new piece of information becomes as important as the information itself, Carr writes, our consciousness begins to bifurcate between the information we’ve already retrieved (say, a downloaded article we’re now trying to read) and the thought of the next object we expect to retrieve. But because the act of anticipation and the act of deep comprehension are two very different mental processes, toggling between them interrupts our concentration and makes it harder to really dig into the thing we’re supposed to be looking at and absorbing. We end up consuming much more information, but processing it in a more superficial way. Further, research suggests that because any routine eventually alters brain structure, this high-volume, low-comprehension mode becomes habit — and, in fact, it even alters the way we process information when we step outside the digital realm. Online or off, we become overly focused on finding new information, while our motivation to dig deeply into the content at hand diminishes. We become more distractible, less able to differentiate the meaningful from the merely stimulating. We’re more likely to struggle with complex, challenging ideas and problems. As neuroscientist Jordan Grafman tells Carr, “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” And, presumably, the less able you are to “properly” understand your own self-interest — or to know when part of it ought to be sacrificed.”


In 1960, three of five heart attack victims died. By 2000, thanks to advances such as beta blockers, cardiac care units, blood thinners, angioplasty, and stents, this was down to one in four. The story was the same across the health care field, which by 2000 had extended the average American life span by another four years.”

Many experts have called for a transaction tax on investors each time they buy or sell a security, derivative, or other financial asset. By making it more expensive to chase incremental changes in stock price, the tax might encourage investors to hold company shares for longer periods. That, in turn, could take some of the quarterly earnings pressure off company executives and let them embrace a longer-term approach to cost cutting, employees, and investment in innovation.

Other proposals target the perverse incentives of executive compensation — for example, by paying senior executives with “restricted” stock that can’t be sold for five years or for several years after an executive leaves a company, thus removing the enticement to go for quick earnings boosts.”

“In 1981, newly elected president Reagan slashed taxes so sharply that the national debt more than quadrupled, to three trillion dollars. The difference then was that Reagan recognized the mistake and subsequently raised taxes four times over the next seven years — including the steepest increase in corporate income tax in history and a hike in payroll taxes that was used to fund Medicare.”

If big firms took even a small fraction of the cash currently spent on share buybacks and reallocated it to ongoing employee training, they would boost their productivity and innovation. That could reduce the need for layoffs in the first place — and, at the very least, would make it easier for laid-off workers to find work elsewhere. Take the case of Apple: with 5 percent of the one hundred billion dollars Apple has committed to share buybacks, the company could create an internal “university” for its employees, with top-notch instructors and accredited programs in skills that are in demand both inside Apple and in the tech sector generally. Such a program, Lazonick says, would be free to all employees — not least the roughly forty thousand currently working in Apple’s retail stores — and would let them train for promotions within the company or reenter the job market with a substantially improved résumé and job skills. Lazonick says such in-house universities are common in developing countries such as India, where corporations recognize the long-term self-interest of expanding the overall pool of trained personnel in the industry. Contrast this to the United States, where many firms, in classic Impulse style, cope with skill shortages as cheaply as possible: by lobbying Washington to let in more skilled immigrants from places such as India.”



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Austin Rose

Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for a few years, follow my journey at