What is impulsivity?

Impulsivity is defined as a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to either internal or external stimulus without thinking of the resulting consequences to the self or others. Impulsivity becomes dysfunctional when the consequences are negative.

Impulsivity affects individuals in the general population as well as those who present a mental health disorder, or those suffering from a brain injury resulting from a traumatic brain injury.

There are a wide range of impulsive behaviors starting from having a simple difficulty waiting for their turn speaking during a conversation, to behaviors that could cause physical harm.

Impulsivity has different causes including a biological predisposition, cognitive difficulties, as well as certain personality characteristics. Although these are three separate categories, they oftentimes interact and can worsen and influence production of impulsive behaviors and disorders. This laboratory (the NPL) attempts to better understand the reciprocal influences involved in both impulsivity disorders and behaviors.

Why be interested in impulsivity’s causal inter-influences?

Traditionally, impulsivity research has been focused on a single theoretical and empirical perspective. Biological research studies are interested in temperaments that predispose an individual to behave themselves in impulsive manners. In contrast, neuropsychological research studies have attempted to identify cognitive problems associated to impulsivity, whereas personality research aims to better understand how an individual perceives and interpret their realities leads them to completing impulsive actions.

The research studies being conducted in the NPL demonstrate that these causes can influence each other’s production of actions related to certain dimensions of impulsivity. For this reason, it is of utmost importance to develop integrative models of impulsivity with the aim to explain its complexity and to guide the development of effective prevention as well as intervention strategies.

The works of the NPL are centered on the urgency trait of impulsivity due to the fact that it is principally involved in all three causes of impulsivity.

What is the urgency trait in impulsivity and what are its causes?

The urgency trait in impulsivity is defined as a predisposition to act in an impulsive manner in the face of intense positive or negative emotions. This particular trait is involved in a variety of different maladaptive behaviors as well as mental health disorders.

Biologically speaking, the urgency trait is believed to be a predisposition to react intensely on an emotional level (negative and positive emotions) as well as the individual’s inability to control their temperament. During childhood development, this predisposition is influenced by maladaptive affect control strategies.

The cognitive perspective views urgency as a result of executive function difficulties. Executive functions are the higher cognitive processes involved in behavioral and emotional autoregulation as well as helping the individual organize and achieve a goal.

In the personality psychology perspective, urgency is related to certain structural and dynamic elements of personality. These elements can be conceived in a variety of ways, according to personality theories.

What is personality and what are the structural and dynamic elements?

Personality is defined as the dynamic organization of the important, stable, and coherent characteristics of a person. These characteristics must have a strong influence over the individual’s behaviors. Personality aspects can be observable or hidden, as well as conscious or non-conscious. The stability and unity of these characteristics define a person’s individuality.

The structural elements of personality refer to the most stable and durable aspects of personality and form the units of basis. According to the Big-Five Personality model (Neuroticism, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness), personality is composed of stable traits that characterize a person through time and events. Impulsivity traits exist in the same way, of which include the urgency trait.

Dynamic personality elements refer to the motivational aspects as well as the mechanisms that allow the different part of personality to interact in order to become a whole. These elements include cognitive processes, conscious and non-onscious desires and emotions that may vary in a dynamic manner or that may change for a brief period or even conflict with each other.

The design of structural and dynamic elements of personality differs depending on the theoretical perspective. The NPL calls on three theoretical frameworks in order to study impulsivity: the trait model, objects relations model, as well as the cognitive behavioral therapy model.

What models of personality are interested in impulsivity?

Regarding the structural elements of personality, the objects relations model focuses on self-representation as well as representation of others, as well as their organized relations involving affects and an individual’s motivations. The cognitive behavioral therapy model creates the existence of cognitive schemes or core beliefs about self, regarding the world, and regarding the future. Despite their differences, these two theoretical models agree with the claim that these personality structures, when they are immature or dysfunctional, may lead to an erroneous interpretation of outside events, of concept of self or others and potentially interfere with regulation of behaviors and of interpersonal relations.

In regards to the dynamic elements of personality, the objects relations model focuses on both positive and negative affects, motivations behind libido and aggression, as well as both conscious and non-conscious defense mechanisms that allow an individual to protect against motivations or representations that cause potential anxiety. One of the central mechanisms according to this model is known as splitting which actively separates representations of both self and others into positive or negative valence.

Meanwhile, the cognitive-behavioral therapy model in cognitive distortions which are logic errors or erroneous interpretations of reality arising from cognitive processes guided by faulty cognitive patterns or dysfunctional core beliefs (e.g.: I am weak, I am inferior, I am unable to do well). Cognitive distortions have many different forms such as arbitrary inferences (come to conclusions without proof) and over-generalizations (generalizing the outcome of all situations from a unique experience).

In conclusion, there are several trait models to define impulsivity. Barratt et al’s model identifies three impulsivity subcomponents:

  • Motor impulsivity which refers to the tendency of acting in the heat of a moment and having an incoherent lifestyle;
  • Unplanned impulsivity defined as a lack of planning, anticipation or understanding for the future and the tendency to dislike intellectually demanding tasks.
  • Cognitive impulsivity which is characterized by having a difficulty to concentrate on the task at hand, intrusion of thought / racing thoughts and quick decision-making.

Whiteside and Lynam’s UPPS model falls within the theoretical framework of the five major personality factors model and identifies four different dimensions of impulsivity:

  • Negative or positive urgency, meaning the tendency to experience strong impulses in the context of intense emotions (negative or positive);
  • Lack of premeditation, a tendency to engage in action without thinking about consequences;
  • Lack of perseverance, defined as having difficulty staying focused on a seemingly boring or difficult task
  • Sensation seeking, characterized by the tendency to like and pursue exciting opportunities as well as having high openness to new experiences that may be dangerous.

Unlike the Barratt model which does not include a sub-component to account for the emotional dimension of impulsivity, the UPPS model measures this dimension through positive as well as negative affects.

What is neuropsychology and its executive functions?

Neuropsychology is the scientific discipline of cognitive psychology that studies the higher mental functions in their dealings with the brain structures by using a variety of investigational methods such as studying brain injury patients as well as using brain imaging studies.

Amongst these mental functions, executive functions that control higher-level cognitive skills needed to adaptively regulate behavior towards a specific goal are included.

These functions are mainly underpinned by the prefrontal cortex and are composed of several interrelated processes that form three main components:

  • Flexibility which is the ability to move attention between tasks or mental operations;
  • Updating working memory information defined as the ability of tracking and maintaining new and relevant information in short term memory;
  • The inhibition of the dominant response, referring to having the ability to suppress (interrupt or postpone) automatic or dominant response.