Taking a Longer Look at Impulsivity

What's Better Now? Or Later?

Impulsivity gets a bad name rap. Impulsive people make decisions without thinking and pay the price. They buy things they don’t need, speak without thinking, and they take unnecessary risks. But it turns out impulsivity isn’t all bad. Impulsivity can help you take advantage of opportunities you’d miss otherwise or come up with ideas on the fly.

Is Impulsivity a Personality Trait?

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In personality typing, Conscientiousness is the opposite of impulsivity. Conscientiousness is one of the Big Five Personality Factors along with Openness, Agreeableness, Extroversion, and Neuroticism. I score in the 90th percentile for Conscientiousness, so that means I’m self-disciplined and focus on the long-term goals. I’m the opposite of an impulsive person who is said to focus on what is fun right now and doesn’t think about the long-term implications. But it turns out personality mapping isn’t perfect.

I am one of the best planners I know, but I make rash decisions too. I have quit and applied for jobs on a whim. I sign up for classes without reading what I’m getting into. Sometimes the outcome is good and other times less desirable. But characterizing impulsivity in one way, and saying people are only one way or another, seems to be the real problem.

Different Types of Impulsivity

How impulsive you are somewhat depends on the scale of impulsivity you use to measure yourself. One scale, the Barrett Impulsivity Scale, and later show it on different facets:

  • Motor – is defined as acting without thinking
  • Attentional/cognitive – the inability to concentrate and focus attention
  • Nonplanning – is being more interested in the present than the future

Another set of studies looked at the belief that impulsivity is always a negative trait. Scott Dickman researched how impulsivity could be beneficial. He called coined the term functional impulsivity for the types of impulsive responses that could be optimal. He called the times when impulsivity was not beneficial dysfunctional. The table below shows examples of each type.

Dysfunctional ImpulsivityFunctional Impulsivity
Saying whatever comes into my mind without thinking first. Putting thoughts into words very rapidly.
Making appointments without thinking about whether I will be able to keep them. Taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, where you have to do something immediately or lose your chance.
Buying things without thinking about whether or not I can really afford them. Taking part in really fast-paced conversations, where you don’t have much time to think before you speak.
Not spending enough time thinking over a situation before acting I would enjoy working at a job that required me to make a lot of split-second decisions.
I often get into trouble because I don’t think before I act. I like sports and games in which you have to choose your next move very quickly.
Many times the plans I make don’t work out because I haven’t gone over them carefully enough in advance. People have admired me because I can think quickly.
I often say and do things without considering the consequences.

Impulsiveness and Creativity

So what about impulsivity and creativity? A recent study is putting some data behind this question. Instead of focusing on who is more creative, the study tested the way people work to see when people are more creative.

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People were given creative and non-creative tasks to do. The creative task was to make as many words from a list of letters and the non-creative task was a mathematical problem. One group was able to switch between the two tasks as often as they wanted while the other group had to complete one task before moving on to the other.

It turned out that impulsive people were more creative when they were able to split their time as they wanted, so they didn’t have to rein in their impulsiveness. Less impulsive people did better when they had more rigid time frames.

8 comments

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    • Catherine Lanser

      Yes, it’s great that we are finally starting to see multiple sides of our traits. Thanks for stopping by!

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