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Individual differences in impulsiveness: A conceptual and empirical analysis

Lisa Marie Beck, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Impulsive behavior is a common theme in psychology, but human decision making, animal choice, foraging, and personality research define and measure impulsiveness differently. The first goal of this study was to determine how much agreement exists between impulsiveness measures based on these different perspectives. A review of these literatures suggests that individual differences in sensitivity to rate of reward and punishment may be an important factor in impulsive decision-making. The second goal of the present study was to investigate this possibility. College undergraduates (n = 159) responded to a four-part questionnaire. The first part was a series of duplex bets that assessed each subject's relative attention to four risk dimensions: amount to win, amount to lose, rate or probability of winning, and rate or probability of losing. The second part of the questionnaire represented the common definitions of impulsiveness in decision theory with 20 items posing hypothetical choices between immediate and delayed rewards. The third part was the 42-item Eysenck Impulsivity Scale used in personality research. Finally, subjects responded to a single 7-point self-rating of impulsiveness, and gave examples of impulsive and unimpulsive behavior. The decision theory items and personality measure of impulsiveness were very weakly related. The findings suggest that reliability and validity issues with regard to hypothetical choices of this type should be investigated carefully before using them in further research. Regarding the suggestion that individual differences in sensitivity to rate account for impulsive behavior, the results of the study indicate that impulsive individuals may instead be particularly sensitive to punishment or cost. When unavoidable cost is explicitly associated with reward, as in the choices in the duplex bets and hypothetical choices in the questionnaire, impulsives weight that information heavily, but in many everyday decision situations, like those described in elicited examples, they may actively avoid cost considerations, which leads to rapid action, sometimes with objectively negative outcomes.

Subject Area

Personality|Social psychology

Recommended Citation

Beck, Lisa Marie, "Individual differences in impulsiveness: A conceptual and empirical analysis" (1992). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9233032.