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Author: Dr Simon Moss


Some individuals are often impulsive: They act without deliberation& they cannot resist temptations& they often engage in thrilling activities, and so forth. In general, impulsive tendencies increase the incidence of an extensive array of problems, from gambling and alcoholism to excessive use of mobile phones. Yet, in some instances, impulsivity can improve performance on particular tasks (Otto, Markman, & Love, 2012).

A variety of conditions and characteristics can foster or diminish impulsivity. A combination of limited serotonin activity as well as adverse circumstances during childhood can provoke impulsive behavior later in life as can dull or tedious environments.

Consequences of impulsivity

Impulsivity is related to a range of attitudes and behaviors, most of which are regarded as undesirable by many people in society. For example, impulsivity is associated with positive attitudes towards sexual promiscuity.


In general, but not in all circumstances, when people are impulsive, they tend to gamble more irresponsibility. Their bets, for example, tend to be higher (Webster & Crysel, 2012).

Webster and Crysel (2012) explored whether the association between impulsivity and gambling depends on whether individuals feel confident or threatened. In their study, participants completed some tests of ability and were then told they had performed below average, to evoke a sense of threat, or above average. In addition, they played 30 hands of blackjack. Furthermore, they completed a measure that gauges the extent to which they behave impulsively, rather than plan their behavior carefully, as well as the degree to which they embrace thrills, called sensation seeking. Impulsivity and sensation seeking were positively associated with the magnitude of bets, but only if participants had not been exposed to threatening and unfavorable feedback about their ability. Arguably, in threatening contexts, the prevailing inclinations of people are not as likely to shape their responses.

Excessive use of mobile telephones

Impulsivity is also related to the excessive use of mobile phones. In a study conducted by Billieux, Van der Linden, d'Acremont, Ceschi, and Zermatten (2007), undergraduate students completed a measure of impulsive behavior, comprising four distinct facets of impulsivity: urgency, limited premeditation, limited perseverance, and sensation seeking. In addition, they completed questions that assess their use of mobile telephones as well as the extent to which they feel dependent on these phones.

Urgency, in which individuals feel strong impulses to act in response to negative events, was positively related to dependence on mobile phones. Urgency might represent the inability to suppress dominant responses and, thus, may curb the capacity of individuals to override their impulse to use their phone. Similarly, limited perseverance, representing an inability to remain focused on a tedious or challenging task, was also related to this dependence. This inability might reflect undue distractibility to other opportunities, such as phoning friends.

Destructive behaviors in general

Sharma, Kohl, Morgan, and Clark (2013) showed that traits that epitomize impulsiveness are highly related to destructive tendencies. For example, individuals who reported a limited tendency to plan, persevere, or resist temptations as well as elevated levels of sensation seeking--all facets of impulsiveness--were more likely to engage in more substance abuse, irresponsible behaviors, such as skipping work, and aggressive behavior.

Benefits of impulsivity

Impulsivity tends to correlate with a vast range of problems. However, as Otto, Markman, and Love (2012) showed, trait impulsivity can enhance performance in a limited range of settings. Specifically, if people are not impulsive, they tend to reach decisions that satisfy future goals, often to the detriment of their immediate needs. They may, for example, forego immediate profits to invest in future equipment. In some volatile and unstable settings, this tendency may be maladaptive. For example, because they invest in the future, these individuals may not survive more immediate threats.

To demonstrate this possibility empirically, in a pair of studies conducted by Otto, Markman, and Love (2012), participants completed a measure of trait impulsivity: the Barrett Impulsiveness Scale. In addition, they played a game. On each trial, they needed to press one of two buttons. Each button conferred a monetary reward. The reward they received followed a complex formula.

Unbeknownst to participants, one of the buttons tended to generate high rewards immediately. The other option generated lower rewards initially until the participant pressed this button many times in a row--parallel to foregoing immediate rewards to invest in the future.

In general, if participants were not impulsive, as gauged by the Barrett Impulsiveness Scale, they tended to choose the option that generates lower rewards until the participant pressed that button many times. They preferred this option, even if the formulas were manipulated to ensure this button would not, ultimately, generate the higher rewards. In other words, low trait impulsivity may encourage people to delay gratification even when such delays do not optimize the outcome.

Antecedents of impulsivity


Carver, Johnson, Joormann, Kim, and Nam (2011) showed that impulsivity is caused by a combination of a specific gene, relating to serotonin, and childhood adversity. In this study, genotyping was undertaken to identify the allele associated with the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene, 5HTTLPR. This region is a section of DNA that facilitates the transcription of the serotonin gene. Two alleles have been differentiated: a short allele, which predicts negative symptoms, and a long allele. In this sample, 31% of participants exhibited two long alleles, 50% of participants exhibited one short and one long allele, and 19% of participants exhibited two short alleles.

In addition, participants completed a measure of childhood adversity. This measure reflected the degree to which the participants, when they were young, felt supported instead of insulted, threatened, abused, or vulnerable. For example, violence in the family was perceived as an indicator of adversity. Finally, participants completed a series of scales that gauge impulsivity.

The results were very clear. If participants exhibited two short alleles they were particularly impulsive: they did not overcome sadness or lethargy and they responded reflexively to both positive and negative emotions. If participants exhibited two long alleles, they were not impulsive. Nevertheless, if child adversity was low, 5HTTLPR did not affective impulsivity. Therefore, this promoter region influences impulsivity only when children are exposed to many adversities.


Impulsive behavior, such as consumption of unhealthy foods or internet addiction, can also be ascribed to self-licensing. To illustrate, after individuals feel they have undertaken a very dull task, they feel they deserve more sweets. That is, they grant themselves the license to eat unhealthily. Likewise, on holiday, individuals may feel they are permitted to eat indulgently. Individuals may, therefore, engage in indulgent behavior, even if they can access the resources and effort that is needed to inhibit these temptations.

In one pair of studies, for example, conducted by De Witt Huberts, Evers, and De Ridder (2012), participants completed a dull but simple task for ten minutes. In particular, a series of words, like horse and desk, were presented on a screen. Participants merely needed to press the first letter of each word on a keyboard. Midway through the task, a black screen appeared for a minute. Only half of the individuals were informed they were randomly chosen to repeat the task to enhance the reliability of this experiment. Therefore, everyone undertook this task for 10 minutes. But, half the individuals felt they had undertaken the same task twice, perhaps granting these participants the license to indulge later.

Next, they were asked to sample various sweets, supposedly to test the taste of these items. Alternatively, in a pilot study, participants completed a Stroop test to gauge the extent to which they were able to control their thoughts.

Relative to the other participants, individuals who assumed they had completed two tedious activities were more likely to indulge in sweets. However, Stroop performance was not compromised. As these results show, if individuals believe they have completed as monotonous task twice rather than once, they grant themselves the license to indulge. These findings persisted even after hunger and other visceral states were controlled.

Self-licensing: Inflating the temptations that people resisted

If people reflect on indulgences or temptations they resisted, they often become more inclined to indulge later. That is, they feel they have earned this right. Indeed, if people inflate the degree to which this indulgence or temptation they resisted is sinful, they become even more likely to indulge later (Effron, Monin, & Miller, 2013).

For example, in one study, participants, all of whom felt their actual weight is higher than is their ideal weight, were asked to indicate all the activities they undertook to lose weight over the previous week. Twenty blank spaces were provided, more than most participants could fill, to highlight they could have tried more activities. Next, some participants were asked to indicate all the unhealthy activities they could have undertaken but resisted& in the control condition, participants instead indicated the fun activities they undertook last week. Finally, all participants indicated the activities they plan to undertake next week to lose weight. If participants reflected upon unhealthy activities they resisted, they planned to engage in fewer activities next week to lose weight (Effron, Monin, & Miller, 2013).

In the second study, under the guise of a taste test, participants were granted an opportunity to consume one of two unhealthy foods. Next, some but not all participants were told they can soon evaluate either a dessert or raw garlic. Finally, participants rated the degree to which they perceived the various foods as healthy or unhealthy. If participants were granted the opportunity to consume a dessert, they rated the foods they did not chose as especially unhealthy. That is, they convinced themselves they had resisted a very unhealthy food and, therefore, deserve an unhealthy food now.

Materialism and compulsive buying

Materialism tends to promote one cluster of impulsive behaviors: compulsive purchases of goods. In particular, Donnelly, Ksendzova, and Howell (2013) conducted a study to examine why materialism is associate with compulsive buying.

In one study, participants completed a measure of materialism (e.g., "I admire people who own expensive homes, cars, and clothes" or "My life would be better if I owned certain things I don't have") as well as a measure of compulsive buying that gauges the degree to which they purchase items they do not need to feel better. In addition, participants completed a scale that gauges the degree to which they monitor and manage their finances well. Materialism was positively related to compulsive buying, even after controlling personality, and this relationship was mediated by impaired management of money.

A subsequent study confirmed these findings. This study also showed that buying goods to improve mood and transform their image also mediated this relationship between materialism and compulsive buying. Thus, when people are materialistic, they often purchase goods merely to improve their mood or status now, often to the detriment of their future goals and finances.

Alternative motives to risky behaviors

Many researchers, either explicitly or tacitly, assume that all risky behaviors are governed by the same motive, such as sensation seeking. Recent evidence, however, challenges this assumption.

Specifically, Barlow, Woodman, and Hardy (2013) differentiated three key motives: the need to seek sensations, regulate emotions, and experience a sense of agency or power. For example, as these researchers showed, people who skydive are more likely to experience the need to seek sensations, whereas people who climb mountains are more likely to experience the need to regulate emotions and feel a sense of agency.

To demonstrate these relationships, Barlow, Woodman, and Hardy (2013) developed a measure that differentiates sensation seeking, emotional regulation, and agency. Sample items include "While participating, I get a rush of chemicals around my body that feels great" to gauge sensation seeking, "Before participating, the emotional elements of my life are difficult to deal with" to gauge emotional regulation, and "While participating, I am in charge" to gauge agency. For each of these three motives, questions that relate to feelings before, during, and after participating in some risky action were included.

Neurological underpinnings of impulsivity

Brown, Manuck, Flory, and Hariri (2011) examined the neurological underpinnings of impulsivity. In short, this study showed that regions that underpin arousal, such as the ventral portion of the amygdala, may increase impulsivity. However, some regions that underpin arousal, but are connected closely to the prefrontal cortex, such as dorsal portions of the amgydala, may decrease impulsivity. Finally, if individuals are impulsive, regions that underpin self control need to be activated on tasks that demand even modest levels of discipline.

In this study, participants completed a measure of impulsivity. Questions examined whether individuals tend to act without deliberation, reach decisions quickly, and fail to plan carefully. Next, they completed a task in which an angry and fearful face appeared alongside one another. Participants had to select one of these two faces, depending on whether another face, which appeared above this pair, was also angry or fearful. In addition, participants completed a similar task, but with abstract patterns instead of actual faces. As fMRI imaging showed, when the stimuli were negative faces rather than neutral patterns, activation of the amygdala increased. Finally, participants completed a task that demands inhibitory control: They needed to press a button whenever any letter except a V appeared. As fMRI showed, inhibition of responses to the letter V activated the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex as well as the anterior cingulate gyrus and caudate.

Interestingly, the ventral amygdala was especially likely to be activated by the negative faces in impulsive participants. In contrast, the dorsal amygdala was especially likely to be activated by the negative faces in participants who were not impulsive (Brown, Manuck, Flory, & Hariri, 2011).

Conceivably, the dorsal amygdala may also be activated in concert with the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which elicits more suitable and responsible behavior. This region of the amygdala may, therefore, evoke rapid responses that nevertheless accommodate broader considerations. These responses are adaptive and may not seem impulsive. In contrast, the ventral amygdala may evoke responses to stimuli that do not integrate information from prefrontal regions.

Furthermore, when responses to the letter V were inhibited, activation of the anterior cingulate gyrus and caudate were especially pronounced in participants who reported limited levels of impulsivity. Presumably, if participants are impulsive, they need to mobilize more processes that control these impulses if their self-control is limited. These regions facilitate self-control.

Measures and taxonomies of impulsivity

Many instruments can be utilized to measure impulsiveness (for a review, see Kirby & Finch, 2010). These instruments include the Barratt Impulsiveness Scales, the EASI Temperament survey, the Guilford-Zimmerman Temperament Survey Restraint and General Activity Scales, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire, the Personality Research Form Impulsivity Scale, the Sensation Seeking Scale, and the 16 PF.

The Barratt impulsivity scale

Many studies have substantiated the utility of the Barratt impulsivity scale (for the original version and psychometric data, see Barratt, 1994). The 30 questions assess the degree to which individuals act without deliberation, called motor impulsivity, reach decisions rapidly, called cognitive impulsivity, and refrain from planning, called non-planning impulsiveness. Test-retest reliability for total scores are .85 over three years (Manuck, Flory, Ferrell, Mann, & Muldoon, 2000;; Manuck, Flory, McCaffery, Matthews, Mann, & Muldoon, 1998). Furthermore, high scores on this measure correlate inversely with serotonergic responsivity to various challenges--responsivity that tends to reflect self-control (see Manuck, Flory, McCaffery, Matthews, Mann, & Muldoon, 1998).

Brief measures of impulsivity

To develop a brief or short measure of impulsivity from the Impulsivity and Sensation Seeking scale that was constructed by Zuckerman et al. (1993), Webster and Crysel (2012) applied item response theory. In particular, Webster and Crysel (2012) identified the items that generated the highest levels of discrimination at different levels of difficulty. The final scale comprised eight items, four of which gauge impulsivity and four of which gauge sensation seeking. A sample item to gauge impulsivity is "I usually think about what I am going to do before doing it" (reverse scored). A sample item to gauge sensation seeking is "I sometimes do crazy things just for fun".

Confirmatory factor analysis verified these two factors, CFI = .95, TLI = .93. The correlation between these two factors was high, at .68. The fit indices associated with a one-factor solution were not as encouraging. Furthermore, the impulsiveness scale was negatively related to conscientiousness and positively related to positive attitudes to sexual promiscuity. The sensation seeking subscale, in contrast, was positively associated with openness and aggression.

The UPPS model

The UPPS model differentiates four facets of impulsivity (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001;; Whiteside, Lynam, Miller, & Reynolds, 2005;; see also Cyders & Smith, 2007): urgency, premeditation, perseverance, and sensation seeking. Urgency represents strong automatic reactions, often in response to powerful emotions. Premeditation describes the extent to which individuals consider the consequence of some act. Perseverance represents the extent to which individuals maintain effort on a task that is monotonous or challenging. Sensation seeking refers to tendency to seek enjoyable and exciting activities.

Subsequent variants of impulsivity have distinguished between positive urgency and negative urgency (Cyders & Smith, 2007). That is, some individuals report positive urgency or the inclination to behave rashly to evoke positive emotions. Other individuals report negative urgency or the tendency to behave impetuously to avoid or overcome negative emotions. Consequently, researchers now distinguish five facets of impulsivity: positive urgency, negative urgency, premeditation, perseverance, and sensation seeking.

A three factor model of impulsivity

Carver, Johnson, Joormann, Kim, and Nam (2011) utilized past scales as well as their own items to uncover a three factor model of impulsivity. Overall, they defined impulsivity as reflexive reactions to emotions. For example, a reflective reaction to anger is aggression. In contrast, a reflexive reaction to sadness is lethargy. From this perspective, impulsivity can manifest as a diversity of behaviors.

They undertook a study in which participants completed a broad range of scales. An exploratory factor analysis, together with a subsequent confirmatory factor analysis, uncovered three factors. The first factor was called pervasive influence of feelings, representing the extent to which emotions, especially unpleasant feelings, shape the judgments, beliefs, and behavior of individuals. This factor comprised four scales, including negative generalization (e.g., "A single failure can change me from feeling OK to seeing only the bad in myself."), sadness paralysis (e.g., "When I feel sad, it paralyzes me"), emotions color worldview (e.g., "When I have emotional experiences, they strongly influence how I look at life.") and inability to overcome lethargy (e.g., "When I feel tired, it's very hard for me to overcome it and do things.").

The second factor was called follow through and reflected the extent to which people complete their tasks rather than merely abandon their attempts midway. This factor comprised several scales as well, such as limited perseverance, limited self control (e.g., "I wish I had more self-discipline"), laziness (e.g., "(I) miss appointments or classes"), and distractibility (e.g., "I am easily distracted by stray thoughts").

The final factor was called feelings trigger action, corresponding to the extent to which individuals respond reflectively to emotions. This factor, therefore, represents overreactions to both positive and negative feelings. This factor comprised several scales: reflexive reaction to feelings (e.g., "When I feel a desire, I act on it immediately") and measures of urgency.

A three factor structure of impulsigenic traits

Sharma, Kohl, Morgan, and Clark (2013) also showed that a series of scales, all measuring qualities that arguably underpin or promote impulsive behaviors, can be reduced to three main factors. The measures they subjected to this analysis included the UPPS Impulsive Behavior Scale, the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale, and The Disinhibition Index, each of which include several subscales. The subscales loaded on three factors:

    • Behavioral dyscontrol: This factor comprised limited goal orientation, planning, or perseverance. These scales reflect the degree to which behaviors are directed to achieving goals versus not striving to achieve goals
      Distractability and urgency: This factor comprised distractibility, urgency, and inattention. These scales reflect the extent to which individuals are unable to resist shifting attention to distractions.
      Sensation seeking: This factor comprised two subscales of sensation seeking.
  • In short, as these factors highlight, impulsive behavior can emanate from three sources: the disinclination to formulate or pursue goals, the tendency to shift attention to immediate temptations, and the pursuit of exciting, risky activities. These three factors align with the UPPS model, except limited planning and limited perseveration are combined.

    Factor analysis of many scales

    Kirby and Finch (2010) subjected most established scales of impulsivity, after removing redundant items, into factor analyses. The following table summarizes these scales. Horns parallel analysis and Velicer's minimum average partial correlation test were undertaken to uncover the number of factors. Approximately, seven to eight distinct facets of impulsiveness emerged. These factors included preparation and care (e.g., "I plan tasks carefully"), impetuous (e.g., "I do things without thinking"), divertible (e.g., "I buy things I don't need"), thrill and risk seeking (e.g., "Would you enjoy skydiving"), happy go-lucky (e.g., "I am a carefree individual"), impatiently pleasure seeking (e.g., "I easily become impatient with people)--a factor that was highly related to temporal discounting--and reserved (e.g., "I like parties I attend to be lively").

    Scale Authors Number of items utilized in this factor analysis
    Barratt Impulsiveness Scale 8 Barratt and Patton(1983) 5
    Barratt Impulsiveness Scale 11 Patton et al. (1995) 17
    EASI Temperament Survey, III Buss and Plomin (1975) 1
    Guilford-Zimmerman Temperament Survey Restraint and General Activity Scales Guilford, Guilford, and Zimmerman (1978) 11
    I5 Questionnaire Eysenck and McGurk (1980) 1
    I7 Questionnaire Eysenck, Pearson, Easting, and Allsopp (1985) 35
    Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Hathaway and McKinley (1967) 1
    Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire Control vs. Impulsivity Scale Tellegen (1982) 12
    Personality Research Form Impulsivity Scale Jackson (1994) 6
    Sensation Seeking Scale Zuckerman (1994) 5
    16 Personality Factors Questionnaire Impulsivity (surgency) scale Cattell, Eber, and Tatsuoka (1970) 1

    Behavioral taxonomies of impulsivity

    In addition to self-reports, researchers sometimes administer reaction time tasks to gauge impulsivity. Researchers have differentiated five behavioral tasks to measure impulsivity (e.g., Cyders & Coskunpinar, 2011, 2012;; Dick et al., 2010).

    First, some tasks assess the capacity of individuals to suppress or inhibit dominant or prepotent responses--that is, the behaviors that people would usually execute (Cyders & Coskunpinar, 2011). One example is the Go Stop impulsivity paradigm (Dougherty, Mathias, Marsh, & Jagar, 2005). In this task, participants must respond whenever some stimulus is presented, unless another specific cue appears. Because this cue does not appear often, participants do not always inhibit their response as instructed. Alternatively, participants might be instructed to complete a go-no go task in which they must withhold responses to targets that appear on approximately 10% of occasions

    Second, some tasks gauge the ability of individuals to disregard irrelevant stimuli, sometimes called resistance from distraction (Cyders & Coskunpinar, 2011). One example is the Brown-Peterson task (see Kane & Engle, 2000). In this task, participants must learn, and then recall, various lists of words. These lists comprise words from the same category. To complete this task, individuals must disregard words from one list as they recall another related list.

    Third, some tasks measure the capacity of people to resist intrusions of thoughts or memories that are no longer relevant to existing goals, called resistance to proactive interference (Cyders & Coskunpinar, 2011). One task was utilized by Dougherty, Marsh, and Mathias (2002). In this task, a number that comprises 5 digits is presented, followed by a distractor. Then, another number that comprises 5 digits is presented, followed by a distractor, and this sequence is repeated. Participants must respond whenever two identical numbers appear consecutively. To complete this task, participants must disregard numbers that appeared two or more trials earlier.

    Fourth, some tasks gauge the tendency of individuals to choose a larger reward in the future instead of a smaller award now, called delayed or temporal discounting. A typical paradigm is described by Dougherty, Mathias, Marsh, and Jagar (2005). Finally, some tasks measure the capacity of individuals to estimate elapsed time accurately (Dougherty, Mathias, Marsh, & Jagar, 2005).

    Relationships between self-report and behavioral measures of impulsivity

    Cyders and Coskunpinar (2012) examined the association between self-report and behavioral measures of impulsivity. They discovered that:


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