Wednesday, February 29, 2012



Impulsiveness and Impulsivity - Impulsiveness - or Impulsivity - is the tendency to act or speak based on current feelings rather than logical reasoning.


Impulsiveness is a normal form of human behavior. All people make some decisions impulsively, based on"gut-feel", "instinct", mood or whim. Life would be very dull if all decisions were made based on logic. Human beings are not like "Mr. Spock" from the classic "Star Trek" series, who was incapable of emotional thought and was often confused by it.

Impulse can be a tremendous ally. Some people have made the best decisions of their lives impulsively. Many people make "big" decisions based on "gut feel" - decisions such as which career to follow, who to marry, where to buy a house, where to invest savings etc.

Impulse can, at the same time, be a tremendous liability. Some people have made the worst decisions of their lives on which career to follow, who to marry, where to buy a house, where to invest savings etc., impulsively based on that same "gut feel".

A key advantage in making decisions impulsively is speed. Impulsive decisions are unencumbered by the need to collect, sort and interpret large amounts of data, analyze cost-benefit ratios and predict and explore all possible consequences of an action. In some fast-paced environments - such as in stock-market security trading, extensive delays in decision-making can be costly.

Most mature, mentally healthy adults learn how to make decisions both impulsively and deliberately, balancing their impulsive urges with their logical reasoning, applying experiences they have learned to minimize risks and maximize the potential rewards. A married woman who has children may have the urge to have an affair with a co-worker, but she may reason that the consequences of the affair would be devastating to her children and her husband. A young man may feel the urge to drive his car at 120 mph, but he may restrain the urge because he knows he may wreck his car or may get pulled over by the police. An angry employee may feel the urge to kill a belligerent boss, but her ability to reason may convince her that such action may result in loss of her job, her freedom, her reputation.

Likewise, impulsive urges sometimes trump logical reasoning in a healthy way. A couple may travel to a vacation in Las Vegas and, knowing the odds are against them, may gamble some of their hard-earned money, knowing they will probably lose but enjoying the thrill of the chance that they just might win a fortune. A young graduate may decide to forego a great job opportunity because he/she wants to head off and "see the world" for a year. A man may decide to marry a woman who just "feels right" - not because she is the healthiest, prettiest girl he can attract.

Impulsivity becomes dysfunctional when decisions made impulsively routinely hurt, or hurt the interests of, he decision-maker, their immediate family or other innocent bystanders.

The frontal lobe, or frontal cortex, is the area of the brain located just behind the forehead. It has been shown by neurologists to be associated with predicting the consequences of actions, ethical decision-making and pattern recognition. In other words, the frontal cortex is the risk/reward-calculation zone of the brain. Experiments have shown that, in most people, the frontal cortex reaches full development at around the age of 25. The lag between full physical maturity and frontal cortex maturity is sometimes used to explain the apparent emotional immaturity in teenagers and young adults, who often make decisions which appear "reckless" to older adults.

In his best-selling book "Blink", author Malcolm Gladwell gives a very readable overview of how impulsive decision making can, at the same time be both a powerful asset and a costly liability.

There are 4 commonly used sub-categories for impulsiveness:

  1. Urgency - A desire to act immediately to avoid missing a perceived opportunity.
  2. Whimsical - Little or no serious consideration of positive and negative consequences of actions.
  3. Procrastination - Unfettered acceptance of diversions to circumvent an undesirable task.
  4. Thrill-seeking - Experiencing a thrill associated with taking a big risk.

Impulsiveness is sometimes measured using the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale.

Examples of Dysfunctional Impulsivity/Impulsiveness

  • A man who spends the family's monthly budget on a "sure thing" at a gambling institution.
  • A woman who wants to stay married but has a habit of having affairs.
  • A man who repeatedly quits his job after less than 2 years.
  • A man who, while taking care of his children, aggressively confronts a gang of youths on the street.
  • An employee who berates and insults her boss & co-workers when faced with a minor disappointment.

What it feels like:

Depending on your situation and your own psychological make-up and your current mood, you may find episodes of impulsivity thrilling, exhausting, entertaining, frightening or threatening.

However, if you are a mentally healthy adult and you are living with a person who routinely exhibits a dysfunctional impulsiveness, you will likely be very concerned about your own safety and the safety of any children and/or innocent bystanders who are in the immediate sphere of influence of an impulsive individual.

You may feel frustrated at your inability to "talk sense" into such a person, or persuade them of the wisdom in your position.

You may also feel torn between a desire to run to safety and a desire to stay and try to help the person who is behaving impulsively.

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