What Is Impulsivity?

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Impulsivity is the tendency to act without thinking about the consequences. For some people, impulsivity is simply a character trait—a preference for spontaneity. For others, it can be a symptom of a significant disorder. Some medications and illegal drugs can also lead to impulsive behaviors.

Learn when impulsivity is a problem and what steps to take if you're concerned.

Impulsive man quits job and packs out his belongings

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What Is Impulsivity?

Impulsivity is the tendency to take action without concern for the consequences. While such behavior can be perfectly normal at some level for young children and teens, it can also become a serious problem or a symptom of a major mental health issue.

There are many different definitions of impulsivity. All of them describe it as an antisocial or negative type of behavior. According to one definition, there are four factors involved with impulsivity, which are:

  • Lack of premeditation: Acting before thinking about the potential consequences
  • Sensation seeking: Seeking out new and exciting experiences, often with the added element of risk for its own sake
  • Lack of perseverance: Quitting a challenging activity or job before it's done
  • Urgency: Taking negative actions during an emotional outburst

Another way to think about impulsivity is to describe it in terms of how it is expressed. One researcher suggests that impulsivity can be broken into:

  • Motor impulsivity: Acting without thinking, which can include anything from hitting and shouting to simply jumping up and pacing
  • Cognitive impulsivity: Quick decision-making without thought of consequences
  • Non-planning: Acting without thought for the future

When Is Impulsive Behavior a Problem?

There is a fine line between spontaneity and impulsivity. A spontaneous decision to take the day off and go to the beach can be a reasonable choice; an impulsive decision to tell off the boss and quit your job can be disastrous.

The difference between impulsivity and spontaneity is that impulsive behavior is usually negative and often has the potential to be harmful to the individual or the people around them.

While spontaneous people may enjoy doing things on the spur of the moment, impulsive people are more likely to act out or take unreasonable risks. For example, impulsivity is closely associated with:

  • Pyromania (the impulse to start fires)
  • Gambling disorders
  • Kleptomania (the impulse to steal)
  • Recreational drug use, which can lead to substance use disorders

Impulsive behavior is a problem (or a potential problem) when:

  • It appears suddenly, as it can be associated with a drug-related issue or with the onset of a physical or mental disorder.
  • It is associated with an unreasonable level of risk that is likely to harm the person or others.
  • It has a negative impact on the person's ability to succeed in ordinary aspects of daily life (for example, they are often fired from or quit jobs, are unable to make friends or keep relationships, etc.).
  • It causes harm to others (impulsive behavior can result in aggression toward others or unreasonable financial or physical harm).

Causes of Impulsivity

Impulsivity is usually associated with a physical, psychological, or developmental disorder. It may also be caused by medications or recreational drugs. The most common disorders associated with impulsivity are:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a medical condition that affects your ability to sit still, control your behavior, and organize your thoughts
  • Autism, a developmental disorder that can make it difficult to interact socially, plan your actions, or control your emotions and behaviors
  • Bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings
  • Antisocial personality disorder, a behavior disorder in which a person doesn't care about other people's needs or feelings and behaves in hurtful and manipulative ways
  • Borderline personality disorder, a mental health condition that can cause emotional disturbances and make it difficult to form and keep relationships
  • Intermittent explosive disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme emotional outbursts and violence
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that results from a traumatic event and may include recurrent problems with anxiety, attention, emotional regulation, and behavior
  • Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological condition that can cause movement problems as well as sudden, uncontrollable urges to act in certain ways

Substances that can cause impulsivity include recreational drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, but can also include medications such as levodopa (used to treat Parkinson's disease) and Abilify (aripiprazole).

How to Help Someone With Impulse Behaviors

If the person with impulsive behaviors is a child, a good first step is to consult a pediatrician. They may recommend an evaluation for ADHD, autism, or another underlying issue. If the person with impulsive behaviors is an adult, it will be up to them to seek help by visiting their own healthcare provider or psychiatrist.

In many cases, impulsive behaviors can be successfully treated through a combination of medical and behavioral therapy. When impulsive behavior comes on suddenly, it may also be the result of drug abuse or side effects from prescribed medication.

Treating Impulsivity

Impulsivity may be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy), and medications. The choice of treatment depends, of course, on the cause of the impulsive behavior. In some cases, simply withdrawing or changing a drug or medication can make all the difference.

Treatment may start with a diagnosis of an underlying issue such as ADHD or bipolar disorder. Once the underlying issue is diagnosed, treatment may include appropriate medication. It may also include both behavioral and cognitive therapy.

In other cases, when impulsive behavior is associated with related issues such as uncontrolled gambling, 12-step programs can be very helpful. These are often recommended along with behavioral and cognitive therapy.

Medications for Impulsivity

Certain groups of medications may be helpful in treating impulsivity. These include:

Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy for Impulsivity

Cognitive therapy is traditional talk therapy, which explores inaccurate perceptions or thoughts that drive impulsive behaviors. Behavioral therapy teaches the person to substitute new behaviors for problematic behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy combines elements of both therapeutic techniques to help people think through and manage problematic behaviors. Therapists may also use techniques such as biofeedback (techniques to gain control of involuntary processes) to help people manage issues such as anxiety, which can lead to impulsive behaviors.

A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you love has impulsive behaviors that are causing issues in daily life, it's important to take action. In some cases, the problem may be linked to a substance use disorder, or it may be a side effect of prescribed medication. In other cases, the problem may be associated with an issue such as ADHD or bipolar disorder.

No matter what its cause, impulsive behavior can be addressed, and can often be managed through therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is impulse control?

    Impulse control is the ability to stop oneself from taking an action because of the potential outcomes of the action.

    For example, a person with good impulse control would walk away from a potential argument with their boss, while a person with poor impulse control might explode in anger.

    Poor impulse control often occurs along with issues like ADHD, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder.

  • What part of the brain controls impulse?

    The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for impulse control. There are several regions within the prefrontal cortex. These interact with neurochemicals such as serotonin to control functions like selective attention, response selection, motivational control, and behavioral inhibition.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.