Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Impulsive Behavior


Sometimes we act responsibly, with an eye on the consequences. Other times we act rashly, apparently disregarding consequences.

Some of us act circumspectly most of the time while others of us tend to be impulsive more often.

To understand these differences in human behavior it helps to know how positive urgency and negative urgency affect us.

People with high levels of positive urgency tend to lose control when feeling happy or excited. Those with high negative urgency lose control when feeling angry, fearful, sad, or depressed.

Positive vs Negative Urgency

Individuals having high positive urgency frequently attempt to prolong or increase positive emotions through impulsive or under-controlled behavior. These are people who become intoxicated in response to feeling good.

Individuals having high negative urgency frequently try to escape distressing emotions through impulsive or under-controlled behavior. These are people who cannot tolerate feeling badly.

While positive and negative urgencies are both linked to behaviors such as gambling and problem drinking, research highlights their many differences.

For instance, a negative urgency can predict how much a person currently engages in problematic gambling, while positive urgency will predict an increase in problematic gambling over time. Only positive urgency predicts impulsive sexual behavior and illicit drug use in college freshmen, and only negative urgency is predictive of disordered eating symptoms (e.g., binge eating, purging).

Urgency Overrides Behavior Brakes

High positive or negative urgency leads to predictable behavior because each overrides the internal “brakes” (e.g. rational thinking, common sense) that keep us from doing regrettable things. With high positive and negative urgency, having brake failure is predictable.

This suggests people with high urgency, positive or negative, do not thumb their noses at consequences. Instead, when experiencing strong positive or negative emotions, the part of them designed to consider the result of risky or harmful behavior is either weak or absent—so there is nothing to stop them.

Awareness of this brake failure - which may have genetic origins - gives us insight into our own impulsive actions, and that of others. It also makes the development of helpful coping skills for high positive and negative urgency likelier.

Source: Psychotherapy Brown Bag
Photo credit: DeptfordJon


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