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Five Ways to Tame Your Wild Side

Is your impulsivity getting you into trouble?

You may think that being spontaneous and acting on impulse makes you more fun to be around. Unfortunately, being impulsive can also get you into trouble. How many times have you regretted a decision that you made without giving the matter serious consideration? Did you buy into a risky venture, accept an invitation to go out with someone you hardly knew, or reply to an email without checking who it was going to or what it said? Spontaneity and impulsivity, as it turns out, may be related to each other. If you act on your impulses time and time again, and then wish you hadn’t, you may be one of those people who needs to find ways to slow down and think before you act.

Some people seem to be predisposed to living on the wild side. They’re fun to be around because you never know what they’re going to do next. Whether it’s an outrageous comment or some ridiculous behavior, they’re certain to get a laugh, at least some of the time. However, impulsivity turns out to be more than just plain fun-seeking.

It’s possible, of course, to over-analyze this type of risky, fun-oriented behavior. In fact, psychologists have a way of taking some of the fun out of fun seeking. Instead of seeing fun seekers as the good-time partygoers that we may imagine, psychologists regard at least some as being unduly rash and impulsive. Unfortunately, however, it’s true that some fun seekers may be the ones most likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The fun they seek isn’t the amusement park or comedy club variety, but the kind that gives them an instant rush or high. The short-term fun produces long-term agony.

Fun seeking can also take the more innocent form of enjoying novel sensations, and not those that are associated with drugs. There is a personality trait that psychologists call “novelty seeking,” which involves being ready to try new things and to savor each new sensation that they experience as a result. This is called the “behavioral approach system” (BAS), an orientation that senses the potential rewards that an activity may bring with it. The “behavioral inhibition system” (BIS), in contrast, is senses potential punishment and so stays away from high-risk experiences. The higher you are on BAS, the more likely you’ll engage in spur-of-the-moment types of exciting activities. If you’re high on BIS, you’ll be too anxious to try something without turning it over and over in your mind, as the possible drawbacks of untested waters loom large in your psyche.

Bi Zhu, of Beijing Normal University (2012) teamed up with University of California Irvine researchers to test the possibility that a rare gene linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin relates to variations in the approach to novel experiences. Prior research showed that a mutation in this gene predisposed individuals to severe impulsivity and novelty seeking (extremes of BAS). Dr. Zhu and colleagues conducted genetic and behavioral testing on nearly 500 university students. The BAS items included fun seeking (“I crave excitement and new sensations,”), drive (“When I want something I usually go all-out to get it”), and responsiveness to rewards (“When I’m doing well at something I love to keep at it”). They measured BIS by asking questions such as “I worry about making mistakes.”

The results of the genetic-behavioral analyses confirmed Zhu’s hypothesis that people high in BAS would have a specific serotonin gene mutation identified in novelty-seeking mice. The authors cautioned that different ethnic populations have slightly different genetic configurations, so the results regarding the specific genes that they studied may not generalize to non-Han Chinese individuals.

Apart from these variations by ethnicity, however, any study on genetic contributions to behavior will only tell the “nature," not the "nurture" part of the story. Being high on the “fun seeking gene” may lead some people to a faster-paced and more novelty-infused lifestyle, but life experiences may temper those tendencies. On the other hand, stress may send some genetically programmed fun seekers over the edge. Kristen Hamilton and a Yale University research team (2013) tested a community sample of nearly 200 men and women on measures assessing their perceived levels of stress and alcohol use, also asking them to report on their impulsivity. As we might expect, people high in life stress also reported high levels of alcohol use. However, the alcohol-stress link was higher for people who saw themselves as impulsivity. Interestingly, those individuals who tested as more impulsive on a laboratory task didn’t show the stress-impulsivity-alcohol link. It seems that stress may trigger more extreme reactions in individuals who recognize their own impulsivity, who in turn become even more likely to try to ease their pain through alcohol use.

Impulsivity may also place individuals at risk for disordered eating behaviors. In a study of high school girls in the State of Mexico, René Ocampo Ortega and collaborators found that girls higher in impulsivity had higher rates both of binge drinking and disordered eating patterns.

It’s important to recognize, though, that some of what we call that impulsive side of fun seeking is actually more oriented toward sensation seeking, or gaining pleasure from new experiences. Durham (U.K.) University psychologist Lee Copping and colleagues (2013) asked over 750 British men and women to provide life history data on their frequency of sexual partners. Impulsivity did not predict the rate of sexual liaisons, but sensation seeking did. Being impulsive in and of itself may not make you more likely to have sex with multiple partners. The desire for thrill and excitement more than an inability to inhibit the impulse to act seems to lead the sensation-seeking fun seeker into a more adventurous sex life.

So far, then we’ve seen plenty of the risks, but what about the possible strengths of people high in fun seeking, especially the kind that doesn’t lead to overly risky behaviors? University of Iowa researchers Kristin Naragon-Gainey and colleagues (2009) looked at a personality factor called “positive emotionality,” which is the ability to experience such feelings as joy and enthusiasm. They obtained self-report ratings from samples both of undergraduates and psychiatric patients to examine the relationship between a positive emotionality component of extraversion and symptoms of depression and social anxiety. Consistent with the idea of the BIS, individuals with high levels of social anxiety were less sociable, less likely to take control in social situations, less likely to seek fun, and lower in the experience of positive emotions. Depression, in turn, was related only to chronically lower scores on the positive emotion scale.

If your desire to have fun is driven by an incontrollable ability to restrain your impulses, you may be headed toward the kind of fun that in the long run is associated with a life style marked by drug and alcohol abuse. A longitudinal study of New Zealanders showed that, indeed, the tendency to have multiple sex partners is linked to higher risks over the long term of developing substance dependence. In addition, if you’re high on impulsivity, you may find it more difficult to deal with stress, and you may have a history of disordered eating patterns.

There may, then, be a middle position between being completely unconstrained, on the one hand, and overly inhibited on the other. To have the “right degree” of wildness, you might consider these 5 reining in steps to curb your impulsivity:

  1. Stop and think before you act. It’s never a bad idea to reflect, even if only for a few seconds, on most of your actions. Before you hit that “reply” button, for example, make sure it’s not a “reply all.” If you’re angry at your partner, don’t lash out right away. Do a brief reality check to see if there’s another way to resolve the problem other than unleashing your emotions. Needless to say, the same applies to sexual hookups. There’s no reason not to examine your motives to be sure you’re going to be safe, both physically and emotionally, before you proceed.
  2. Try to gain insight into your impulsivity. As the Yale study showed, people who feel that they’re impulsive are more likely to handle stress by using alcohol, which in turn leads to its own set of problems. Even if your genes are as programmed toward the BAS as those unfortunate lab mice, you have the advantage that they don’t have of being born with a prefrontal cortex, so use it.
  3. Find ways to be funny that don’t involve your acting like an out-of-control teenager. You may have a reputation for being ready and willing to do anything on a dare, but no one will think any the less of you if you start to show a little grown-up restraint. You may find that your natural amiability allows you to amuse others through your wit, not your witlessness.
  4. Separate sensation- from novelty-seeking. Having fun through new experiences can certainly enhance your life, but novelty-seeking for the sake of novelty-seeking can lead you to dangerous levels of escalation. Getting true enjoyment out of your experiences is what will make you the happiest even if it doesn’t produce the same rush as doing something completely new and different.
  5. Ask the people who know and care about you to perform a reality check. If your crowd of acquaintances seems to get vicarious thrills from watching you perform, egging you on to more extreme behavior, it’s possible that they don’t have your best interests at heart. The people who truly care about you are the ones who probably cringe with every one of your newest and most extreme ventures that they think places you at risk. As difficult as it may be, taking their advice may help you put the controls on yourself.

The least complicated kind of fun loving is the kind that allows you to feel happiest and will also get you into the least amount of trouble. Ultimately, the “high” you get from those positive emotions is what will contribute to your long-term happiness.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Copping, L. T., Campbell, A., & Muncer, S. (2013). Impulsivity, sensation seeking and reproductive behaviour: A life history perspective. Personality And Individual Differences, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.01.003

Hamilton, K. R., Ansell, E. B., Reynolds, B., Potenza, M. N., & Sinha, R. (2013). Self-reported impulsivity, but not behavioral choice or response impulsivity, partially mediates the effect of stress on drinking behavior. Stress: The International Journal On The Biology Of Stress, 16(1), 3-15. doi:10.3109/10253890.2012.671397

Ortega, R., Chapelo, l., & Santoncini, C. (2012). Disordered eating behaviors and binge drinking in female high-school students: The role of impulsivity. Salud Mental, 35(2), 83-89

Zhu, B., Chen, C., Moyzis, R. K., Dong, Q., Chen, C., He, Q., & ... Lin, C. (2012). Association between the HTR2B gene and the personality trait of fun seeking. Personality And Individual Differences, 53(8), 1029-1033. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.07.026

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