Impulsive Behavior: What is it, what are its symptoms, causes and can it be diagnosed?


“I had to buy it!…” “I just couldn’t resist!” “I don’t regret anything I said!” These are common expressions we hear every day and we might have even said them occasionally.  They tell us how we self-regulate or self-control our words, actions, and behavior. In other words, until when can we restrain and postpone our impulses and emotions. Discover in this article what is impulsive behavior? what symptoms are there in impulsive behavior? what does it cause it? and how is impulsive behavior diagnosed? 

Impulsive behavior

Impulsive behavior

What is impulsive behavior?

The word impulse means the urge to do something. Impulsiveness can be defined as a particular way of perceiving the world, where there is a predisposition to act uncontrollably and fast when faced with an event, an interior or exterior stimulus. There is a flaw in the person’s analytical judgment meaning he/she doesn’t think about the consequences of their actions.


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Therefore, impulsive behavior is a tendency to act without thinking about the consequences of your actions and these actions usually occur in reaction to some event that has caused the person to have an emotional response.

Causes of Impulsive Behavior

Neuroscience has discovered the path an impulse and an idea becomes a behavior in the brain (through PET images: Positron emission tomography) and eventually an uncontrollable compulsion. The images indicate that some people have difficulty postponing the impulse to its reward for a longer period of time. 

Impulsive behavior is closely related to neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, which is linked to the learning process and reinforcements.

Researchers like Idit Shalev from Yale University and Michael Sulkowski from Florida University have described the physiological aspects that might explain impulsive and repetitive behavior. They discovered receptor flaws in the frontal lobe specifically in the prefrontal cortex where executive functions are in charge of decision making and judgment.


This means that brain nucleus located in the decision making part of the brain take a detour and look for the quickest way to receiving a reward without much thought or work. Other researchers like Yoshua Buckholtz from Vanderbilt University established in 2009 that impulsive behavior may be explained by less active dopamine receptors in the middle region of the brain, the area is in charge of logic decision making. These receptors can also explain the tendency for impulsive people to be depressed.

Like with drug addiction and gambling, impulsive behavior leads to regret of the action without it being enough to stop the behavior previously.

Symptoms of Impulsive Behavior

On the other hand, researchers such as Michalczuk, Bowden-Jonesm Verdejo-García and Clark established for main components of impulsive behavior:

Inability to plan or prepare: driven by our impulses, we can’t prepare for the expected logical consequences, on the contrary, surprise becomes the main characteristic where “anything can happen”.

  • Low self-control: another piece of cake, another cigarette, etc. There is usually no restraints or self-control.
  • Low perseverance: wasting time because the task isn’t as exciting as we thought is very common. Excitement dictates the next move. Overcoming procrastination becomes very difficult.
  • Searching for new experiences: Driven by intense positive or negative emotions our cognitive skills to plan and evaluate different alternatives are distorted, leading us later into regretting decisions made in the impulse of the moment.

Each impulse is different and has different consequences, from eating an extra piece of cake when we shouldn’t, to stealing, breaking things and even self-mutilation. In the abyss of impulsive behavior, even our own lives or the ones we love might be in danger.

As you have seen, our emotional state is key in this behavior, during the process the brain releases emotional states that tinge the perception of reality making it difficult for the person to not feel the impulse to act. The process of rational thought is broken, therefore, the person cannot put into perspective their actions and consequences.

How is Impulsive Behavior diagnosed?

We are all victims of impulsive behavior at any point in our lives, however, when this becomes a habit it can be a serious issue. If you think impulsive behavior has taken control of your life we urge you to visit a specialist. The specialist uses special tools, questionnaires, and interviews to determine the risk of the impulsive behavior and establish therapeutic measures. There are also specialized tests such as CogniFit’s inhibition test that can help determine how impulsive and help you train to inhibit this impulsive behavior.


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Impulsive behavior takes part in several disorders, including ADHD and Parkinson, however, it can be related to others as we’ll see below.

  • Sexual Compulsion: It comes with an increased need for sexual behavior and sexual thoughts. It can be very risky to the person’s health as well as their partner.
  • Internet addiction: It is related to excessive usage of the Internet, resulting in damaging, from gambling, online shopping or chatting.
  • Compulsive shopping: Buying impulsively when the purchases are not needed or cannot be afforded is a characteristic of this impulsive behavior.
  • Kleptomania: Impulsive urge to steal just for the gratification is a perfect example of how this behavior is related to emotional states.

If you feel like any behavior escapes your control please visit a specialist. If you liked this article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below :).


Referencias bibliográficas

Celma Merola, Jaume. Bases teóricas y clínica del comportamiento impulsive. Colección digital Profesionalidad. Ed. San Juan de Dios. Barcelona (2015).

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.

Why Are You so Impulsive? Self-regulation and symptoms of impulsivity. Timothy A Pychyl Ph.D. Don’t Delay.  Psychology Today, Posted Jun 23, 2009


This article is translated from a Spanish article written by Reinaldo Barbero, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.