How Impulsive Are You?

Impulsivity isn't always dysfunctional. Find out where you rate.

Posted Nov 28, 2014

Impulsivity is a basic, yet fascinating concept in psychology. It’s associated with many traits, ranging from sensation-seeking to neuroticism, and it affects a number of behaviors of interest to psychologists, from over-eating to under-saving. Many important choices you've made may have been affected by your level of impulsivity.

Psychologist Ernest Barratt has developed a popular measure of impulsivity that differentiates between planning impulsivity (being more interested in the present than the future); attentional impulsivity (being restless in lectures or having extraneous thoughts when thinking); and motor impulsivity (doing things without thinking).

Impulse buying—such as all those unnecessary purchases people made to take advantage of Black Friday discounts—is captured mainly by the latter dimension. People who tend to make impulse purchases may or may not suffer from more general impulsivity traits. Scott Dickman devised a widely-used instrument to measure dysfunctional impulsivity, provided below for you to complete.

For each of the following statements, please indicate whether it is generally TRUE or FALSE.

  1. I will often say whatever comes into my head without thinking first.
  2. I enjoy working out problems slowly and carefully.
  3. I frequently make appointments without thinking about whether I will be able to keep them.
  4. I frequently buy things without thinking about whether or not I can really afford them.
  5. I often make up my mind without taking the time to consider the situation from all angles.
  6. Often, I don't spend enough time thinking over a situation before I act.
  7. I often get into trouble because I don't think before I act.
  8. Many times the plans I make don't work out because I haven't gone over them carefully enough in advance.
  9. I rarely get involved in projects without first considering the potential problems.
  10. Before making any important decision, I carefully weigh the pros and cons.
  11. I am good at careful reasoning.
  12. I often say and do things without considering the consequences.

 

To calculate your score, add up the number of times you answered TRUE on items 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 12, and the number of times you answered FALSE on items 2, 9, 10 & 11.

Got your score? Now see how you compare to the average scores of some of these specific populations whose impulsivity has been studied in past research:

If your score is relatively high, don’t worry: You may also have functional impulsivity traits. Unlike other psychologists who have construed impulsivity purely as an abnormal personality trait, Dickman’s research instrument includes a functional impulsivity dimension. A person who is good at thinking on their feet and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities may fit the profile of a “functional impulsive." Those people may also enjoy activities (including jobs) that require them to make quick decisions. Here are some sample statements from Dickman’s functional impulsivity measure:

  1. I don't like to make decisions quickly, even simple decisions, such as choosing what to wear, or what to have for dinner.
  2. I am good at taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, where you have to do something immediately or lose your chance.
  3. Most of the time, I can put my thoughts into words very rapidly.
  4. I am uncomfortable when I have to make up my mind rapidly.
  5. I like to take part in really fast-paced conversations, where you don't have much time to think before you speak.
  6. I don't like to do things quickly, even when I am doing something that is not very difficult.
  7. I would enjoy working at a job that required me to make a lot of split-second decisions.
  8. I like sports and games in which you have to choose your next move very quickly.
  9. I have often missed out on opportunities because I couldn't make up my mind fast enough.
  10. People have admired me because I can think quickly.
  11. I try to avoid activities where you have to act without much time to think first.

Important outcomes in our lives are often determined by the balance between functional and dysfunctional impulsivity. A consumer whose impulsivity is relatively high on the dysfunctional side is more likely to be an impulse buyer. When the balance tips in favor of functional impulsivity, the consumer may simply be more adventurous in their buying behavior. In studies on addiction, research has (not surprisingly) found that dysfunctional impulsivity relates to substance abuse. Its functional counterpart, on the other hand, can even have the inverse effect—greater functional impulsivity has been associated with lower cravings for both cigarettes and opiates. This may partly occur because functional impulsivity is associated with better executive functioning, cognitive skills that help mental control and self-regulation.

Now available: The Behavioral Economics Guide 2014 on BehavioralEconomics.com (free download)