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Reflection and Impulse as Determinants of Human Behavior

Anand Krishna and Fritz Strack

The Missing Link Between Knowledge and Action

The experience of being and acting human is a universal theme of cultural expression. From movies to great literary works, great weight is placed on both of these aspects, being and acting. Literary figures that resonate in our minds do so both because of their heroic (or antiheroic) actions and their inner life—their motivations, feelings, and thoughts on their own existence and actions. Sometimes this inner life reflects a clever, reflective type of thinking, as with the Danaans in Homer’s Iliad and their plan to defeat the Trojans by infiltrating the city in a wooden horse. But equally fascinating are the stories of protagonists who show an impetuous, impulsive side, such as Icarus, the Greek youth who flew too close to the sun and thereby melted his artificial wings despite his father’s specific warning. Lastly, there are those figures who are faced with an inner conflict between reflection and impulse—Odysseus, for all his cleverness, cannot resist the temptation to hear the deadly song of the Sirens, yet his forethought in having himself tied to the mast of his ship defeats the impulse to drown himself trying to reach them.

These three Greek legends appear to show different ways of thinking that lead to different results. Coming up with complex plans such as the Trojan Horse requires reflection and active use of knowledge, whereas such deliberation would seem antithetical to Icarus’ flight. However, these two different modes of thought do seem to come together in a fashion, as is in Odysseus’ use of forward planning to defeat the consequences of his impulsive decision. In everyday life, as well, people often approach situations in these two ways—spending a while considering what to eat for lunch and making a deliberate selection but also automatically grabbing a sweet dessert without thinking about it at all. When considering how these mental

A. Krishna (*) • F. Strack

Institute for Psychology, University of Wurzburg, Wurzburg, Germany e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_9

processes work, it makes sense to look at the two styles of thinking separately to gain an understanding of their interaction and of their actual effect on behavior.

In this chapter we seek to illuminate the characteristics of these two processes, show their interactions with each another, and point out their common effect on behavior. To do so, it is first necessary to evaluate each system independently, examining historical and current perspectives on reflective and impulsive styles of thought. Thereafter, we present an integrative model of thinking and action in an endeavor to identify when which system of thought will be active and under what circumstances it will influence behavior.

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