Searching for the energetic, spontaneous, restless, impatient, quick decision-maker who gets things done?  Do you want a spunky live-wire who gets on with it?  Just do it!

But what about the impulsive, thrill- seeking, complexity-avoiding, easily-distracted, unreflective person who can’t and won’t plant for the future?   Surely they are worth avoiding?  Trouble is, these traits go together. They form a cluster called “impulsivity”.

Consider the 10 simple statements below:

I often do things without thinking
I am not very serious minded
I usually make up my mind very quickly
I generally seek new and exciting experiences and sensations
I am pretty happy-go-lucky
I can put my thoughts into words pretty quickly
I admit I often lose interest in things I have started
I really get impatient waiting
I don’t like and am not good at business planning

I am not the person to “sleep on it” before making a decision.

If you say “true” or “yes” to 7 or more you would probably be called impulsive.  This means your work is often fast but possibly inaccurate.  You may have been called "slap dash". This may or may not matter….depending on the task you do. Indeed you may be thought of as an ideal worker!

Impulsive people are often stable, and sociable, but not very conscientious.  The literature suggests that they prefer “explosive” to “endurance” sports.  And they tend to have more traffic accidents and violations.

More interestingly impulsives are highly sensitive to reward cues but curiously insensitive to punishment cues.  This, in effect means, they are better managed by promises of quick, sexy, exciting rewards than by the threat of dire punishment.  Impulsivity can be exaggerated by caffeine and tends to be more noticeable in the evening than the morning.

The impulsive manager or worker may have superficial appeal.  They don’t mess about, do take risks and do embrace change.  They go for quick rewards and seem to have limitless energy.  They may thrive in certain worlds like PR and advertising where the pace and task demands fit their preferences.

There are benefits of what is called functional impulsivity.  The functional (that is good) impulsive can quickly take advantage of unexpected opportunities.  They can rapidly put their thoughts into words.  They can think on their feet.  They are mentally agile.  The bright functional impulsive is an asset; the dim one much less so.

But equally they can be lethal.  They need someone to temper their enthusiasm, to consider consequences, to plan ahead and to keep persisting in the face of failure or setback.  Impulsives need control mechanisms to moderate their fast tempo and love of reward.  These mechanisms may lie in other aspects of their personality.  Thus the brighter the impulsive the better – the more they see consequences and can size-up a situation wisely.  And the more anxiety-prone (up to a point of course) the better because this tempers the risky, recklessness that is so often associated with impulsives.

The dysfunctional impulsive can be an accident waiting to happen.  These people say whatever comes into their heads without thinking first.  They make appointments without checking they can honour them.  They buy things before considering whether they can afford them.  They jump in, just do it before considering difficulties, implications, pros and cons.  They don’t like careful reasoning.

So it’s a trade-off.  A bright impulsive person in fast moving products can be an advantage.  But impulsivity like all human characteristics (save handedness), is normally distributed in a bell-curve.  Most of us have moderate impulsivity.  So it’s not a case of all or nothing.  To be on the high side of the impulsivity spectrum brings its advantages and disadvantages.  The adventurous, active, enthusiastic impulsive can bring dynamism to any group.  But the disorderly, anti-analytic, planless impulsive can lead any well thought-through plan to doom and destruction.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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