Action Intelligence: The art of replacing impulses with actions based on reasoning

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In day-to-day life, people can perform most of their tasks on autopilot (e.g., cycling, walking, writing, etc.). On the other hand, our article “Cognitive Load Theory: How does it impact sports performance?”  illustrated the challenges of a football player in a world cup final with loads of information coming into his sensory memory. The most important information gets transferred to his working memory and used in deciding if, where, and when he needs to shoot the ball. In the 10 seconds of the 1 vs 1 situation with the keeper, the player has 100 chances to shoot. However, he can only choose one. In the “cognitive load theory “-article the football player missed the game-winning scoring chance because he chooses to ignore better chances or didn’t wait long enough to be in the optimal position. 

This latter behavior is related to something called inhibitory control. In the 1 vs 1 situation between a striker and a goalkeeper, the player needs to be able to control and ignore his impulses while he needs to use his attention and reasoning in order to create the response that best fits the situation. If the player can improve his inhibitory control, this player can be seen as being action intelligent. 

Inhibitory control or inhibition of one’s, impulses can help a football player in his goalscoring opportunities, a soldier in escalating or de-escalating a highly dangerous situation, or you in your daily decisions in stress, pressure, or uncertainty. It is an ability that’s part of everyone’s executive functioning, that is part of people’s ability to anticipate, plan and improve on their decision-making. Hence, improving action intelligence. Training this ability would help facilitate people in ignoring the impulses and replacing them with appropriate actions based on objective information processing in the context of the situation. 

Inhibitory control (like executive function in general) to regulate cognitive activity can be seen as a skill in itself. Training people and facilitating them in achieving higher cognitive abilities, can help them control and inhibit part of their cognitive activities whilst being able to channel their cognitive capacities to really focus on the stimuli being presented, retrieve information from their working- as well as long-term memory, and apply their knowledge to solve problems in appropriate, innovative, and efficient ways.

In Piaget’s model of cognitive development, (action) intelligence – and thus inhibitory control – is seen as a gradual progression in one’s thoughts of intellectual functioning, starting from concrete and moving to more innovative solutions. This implies that the development of one’s cognitive capacity can lead to solutions that did not exist before, something that is immensely valuable to be a creative winger aspiring to be the next Messi or the engineer wanting to improve products to strengthen their company’s portfolio in a highly stressful and competitive environment. 

Development in one’s action intelligence is also highly qualitative, and consists of three main parts:

  1. A repeatable pattern of behavior is called a structure or a scheme. These are the predetermined and simple solutions to clearly defined problems. You see your teammate 10 meters away from you and you need to give a simple pass in his feet. 
  2. When someone faces a problem, a specific behavior or pattern can be seen. This is called the content of intelligence. Think about the striker being unable to inhibit his impulses and he shows this weakness the whole season, showing the content of limited action intelligence. 
  3. Someone who can solve their way through problems in new and innovative ways works on intellectual progress, this is called function. 

Achieving the level of function when facing problems can be achieved by organization and adaptation. The prior, organization, is based on the cognitive abilities that can help an individual to process information into a coherent system. In doing so, this system can help recognize similar problems sooner hence making decision-making more effective. The latter, adaptation, is based on a person’s ability to act appropriately in the context of the situation. A striker needs to be aware of the scoring opportunities before making their decision and a soldier needs to be aware of their surroundings to determine when to (de-)escalate. 

One fundamental aspect of adaptation is accommodation. This is described as the process in which a response can be altered by an individual based on their cognitive overload. That is where cognitive development can fit right in. 

The Aristotle cognitive training tool facilitates individuals as well as teams with a controlled environment that is not yet known, offering the chance for people to cognitively adapt. Coaches can put the trainees into cognitive overstimulation with various tasks, different levels of complexity, and randomness in affordable reaction times. Over time, this helps people accommodate to being in highly stressful, pressure, or uncertain environments. 


  • Brehmer, Y., Westerberg, H., & Bäckman, L. (2012). Working-memory training in younger and older adults: training gains, transfer, and maintenance. Frontiers in human neuroscience6, 63.
  • Maraver, M. J., Bajo, M. T., & Gomez-Ariza, C. J. (2016). Training on working memory and inhibitory control in young adults. Frontiers in human neuroscience10, 588.
  • Protzko, J. (2017). Effects of cognitive training on the structure of intelligence. Psychonomic bulletin & review24(4), 1022-1031.
  • Sari, R. K., Sutiadiningsih, A., Zaini, H., Meisarah, F., & Hubur, A. A. (2020). Factors affecting cognitive intelligence theory. Journal of Critical Reviews7(17), 402-10
  • Schubert, T., Strobach, T., & Karbach, J. (2014). New directions in cognitive training: on methods, transfer, and application.

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