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Why Are You So Impulsive?

Self-regulation and symptoms of impulsivity.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about my own strengths and weaknesses." "I often compare myself with other people." If these statements describe you, you may be interested in the results of a new study that indicates that you are more likely to be impulsive and anxious.

In a recent issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Idit Shalev (Yale University) and Michael Sulkowski (University of Florida) explored the relation between two key aspects of self-regulation with symptoms of impulsivity and compulsivity. Of course, both the focus on self-regulation and impulsivity caught my interest in terms of procrastination. As I have written previously, a failure to be able to self regulate can manifest itself as procrastination (or many other problematic behaviors such as compulsive shopping, substance abuse or problematic gambling), and impulsivity is a key correlate of measures of procrastination. The more impulsive an individual is, the more likely he or she will procrastinate.

Shalev and Sulkowski measured two aspects of self-regulation: locomotion and assessment. Locomotion entails initiating and maintaining goal-directed behavior without undue distractions or delay. This aspect of self-regulation is about the "getting on with it" or "making something happen." In contrast, assessment is the aspect of self-regulation concerned with evaluating goals and plans in relation to alternatives. It's about thinking, not acting per se. This includes the potential for chronic and continuous preoccupation with the evaluation of the self and comparison to others.

Two scales have been developed to measure locomotion and assessment. As the authors report, previous research with these scales "found that high scores on the assessment scale are associated with overly critical and comparative thinking, prevalent counterfactual thinking, and regret following goal pursuit" (p. 85). In contrast, high scores on the locomotion scale have been found to be associated with decisiveness, as well as lack of counterfactual thinking and regret.

It's easy to see where this research might lead when you think about impulsivity and compulsivity, as Shalev and Sulkowski did. They hypothesized "that assessment would be positively related to obsessive-compulsive, impulsive and anxiety symptoms [and] By contrast, locomotion would be negatively related (or unrelated) to obsessive-compulsive, impulsive or anxiety symptoms" (p. 85).

Their research
Data were collected from a sample of 330 undergraduate students (211 females), 95% of whom were between the ages of 18 to 21 years (self-described ethnic background as 53% White/Caucasion, 21% Black/African American, 15% Hispanic/Latino, 7% Asian, 4% other). The participants completed measures of: 1) Locomotion and Assessment, 2) Obsessive-Compulsiveness, 3) Impulsivity, and 4) Anxiety. The analyses were based on the relations among the variables (correlations and regression).

Their findings
Overall, their results suggest that impulsivity is characterized by high assessment and low locomotion, whereas obsessive-compulsive symptoms and anxiety are only related to high assessment. Chronic assessment as defined by the measure of assessment is maladaptive.

Implications and concluding thoughts
How can we make sense of assessment (chronic self-appraisal and criticism) in relation to impulsivity? The authors believe that it may be explained in relation to depleting self-control resources. They write, "The association between assessment and impulsivity may be explained, in part, by negative self-appraisals that deplete the self-control resources and subsequently results in impulsive behavior" (p. 86). Additionally, they add, "after engaging in impulsive behaviors, individuals may then be occupied in assessment, negative self-appraisals, and regret. For example, even though pathological gamblers often report experiencing highly pleasurable emotions while gambling . . . these individuals are at a pronounced risk for experiencing symptoms of depression after losing large amounts of money" (pp. 86-87).

If you are reading this because you're a chronic procrastinator, this may sound all too familiar and provide some insight into the self-regulatory failure that you've experienced.

Shalev, I., & Sulkowski, M.L. (2009). Relations between distinct aspects of self-regulation to symptoms of impulsivity and compulsivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 84-88.