What is Impulsivity (Impulsive Behavior)?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on December 05, 2023
6 min read

Impulsivity is the tendency to act without thinking. For example, you might blurt something out, buy something on a whim, or run across the street without looking. Impulsivity isn’t the same thing as rudeness or lack of self-discipline. It’s a behavior pattern that starts in the brain.

A certain amount of impulsive behavior is common, especially in children or teenagers, and isn’t necessarily a sign of trouble. It’s typical for them to act impulsively because their brains are still developing. But in some cases, it can be a part of certain conditions.

Compulsive vs. impulsive

Many people confuse impulsivity and compulsivity. These are two related concepts that describe when you have trouble making thoughtful decisions. The biggest difference is that impulsive behaviors are unplanned and spontaneous, whereas compulsive behaviors are repetitive and ritualistic. For example, suddenly buying an expensive item is an impulsive behavior. But repeatedly checking that the stove is off is a compulsive behavior.

In some ways, impulsivity and compulsivity are opposites. But many people have both impulsive and compulsive behaviors. Some scientists think that impulsivity and compulsivity may be closely related – different behavioral patterns caused by the same brain processes.

The part of the brain that controls decision-making and reasoning is called the prefrontal cortex. It’s a part of the frontal lobe in your forehead. You can think of it as the small voice in your head that asks, “Is this really a good idea? Why or why not?” If you have low impulse control, that voice might be very quiet or not there at all. This makes it hard to stop yourself from reaching for another slice of cake or making an inappropriate comment. 

Children are often impulsive because they are still developing and maturing. This process continues as you grow up. 

When you become a teenager, your brain goes through some big changes. Each part of the brain changes at its own pace. The parts that process emotions (like the amygdala) tend to mature more quickly than the parts that control reasoning (like the prefrontal cortex). As a result, teenagers are often overwhelmed by emotions but don’t yet have the decision-making skills to think through their reactions. 

Because of this, it is normal for teenagers to act impulsively. As you become an adult, the rational parts of your brain usually catch up to the emotional parts of your brain, making it easier for you to control your impulses.

But certain things can damage your frontal lobe and affect your ability to make logical decisions, such as:

  • Brain injury
  • Alcohol and other drugs
  • Dementia

In addition, conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder can cause impulsive behavior. 

Impulsivity is the main feature of some conditions. These conditions, called impulse control disorders, happen when you have frequent urges to behave in negative ways.

Experts don’t know exactly what causes impulse control disorders, but they are linked to certain risk factors, such as

  • Genetics. If you have a family member with a mental health condition, you might be more likely to have an impulse control disorder.
  • Biology. Unusual brain or hormonal patterns might add to impulsive behavior.
  • Social and environmental conditions. Growing up with money troubles, violence, neglect, or other challenges could lead to impulse control disorders.
  • Sex. Males are more likely to have impulse control disorders.

It’s human nature to sometimes say or do something you wish you hadn’t. But if it happens too often, it could cause problems in your personal life. 

If you notice a regular pattern of the following, impulsivity might be an issue for you:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Restlessness
  • Interrupting others
  • Being easily distracted
  • Breaking the law
  • Destroying things
  • A hard time saving money or managing finances
  • Inappropriate or sexual remarks
  • Angry outbursts
  • Lack of forethought

Impulsive behavior in children

All children act impulsively from time to time. Examples include:

  • Calling out in class
  • Jumping without looking where they will land
  • Uncontrollable emotional reactions, such as jumping or screaming
  • Saying the first thing that pops into their head, even if it’s not nice
  • Trouble saving their allowance or waiting for dessert

It might be time to talk with your child’s doctor or psychologist when impulsive behaviors: 

  • Form a regular pattern
  • Are more serious (like stealing or starting fights)
  • Disrupt daily activities and relationships

Impulsive behavior can be a symptom of several conditions, including those that don’t directly involve impulsive behavior – for example, anxiety and autism spectrum disorders. Some of the most common ones include:

ADHD. Examples of impulsivity in ADHD include interrupting others who are talking, shouting out answers to questions, or having trouble waiting your turn when standing in line.

Bipolar disorder. This brain disorder affects your mood, energy level, and ability to do day-to-day activities. Impulsiveness can show up in behaviors like extreme spending habits or substance abuse.

Trichotillomania. Also known as “hair-pulling disorder,” this is when you can’t stop pulling out your hair – on top of your head, eyebrows, eyelids, or anywhere else on your body.

Pathological gambling. People who have this disorder can’t stop gambling, even though it affects their work, personal life, and health.

These disorders are less common. People who have them act on urges to do things that harm themselves or others, aren’t socially acceptable, or are against the law. Impulse control disorders can take many different forms, such as:

Oppositional defiant disorder. This is when you can’t stop yourself from being disrespectful toward authority figures, such as parents or police officers.

Conduct disorder. This is when you are regularly aggressive toward other people. It can involve disrespectful behavior, cruelty, theft, and rule-breaking. 

Intermittent explosive disorder. This is when you lose your temper often, usually in short outbursts. When you have this condition, even the smallest things can trigger anger or aggression.

Kleptomania. This is when you can’t resist the urge to steal. Afterward, you feel a sense of relief or pleasure, even though you might not even keep what you steal.

Antisocial personality disorders. With these disorders, you pay little or no attention to right and wrong and tend to treat people badly without thinking about the results. 

Pyromania. This is the urge to set fires or the obsession with setting them.

Various therapies, parenting strategies, and techniques can help manage impulsive behavior, even if it is not caused by a specific condition. If impulsivity is part of a condition, it is important to treat the condition itself.

Therapy options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help you understand how your thoughts and emotions affect your behavior. Then, you learn to work through situations that might trigger your impulsive behavior.

If you are a caretaker, you can use certain strategies to help your child behave appropriately. You can practice these strategies on your own or with guidance from a therapist. Some common practices include:

  • Positive reinforcement. This means praising your child when they act appropriately.
  • Encouraging empathy. Help your child think about how other people are feeling. Pay attention to how certain actions might affect others.
  • Nonviolent discipline. Don’t spank or hit your children when they make a mistake. Instead, suggest a more appropriate behavior.
  • Consistency. Keeping a routine can help children feel more comfortable.
  • Patience. Remember that people who struggle with impulsivity usually don’t mean to be rude or hurtful. 

Some techniques can help you manage impulsive behavior. For example, you might carry a notebook either to doodle in to distract yourself or to write something down before saying it out loud. The idea here is to pause before you act impulsively, so you have a chance to think through whether what you’re about to do is a good idea and what the consequences might be.

The FDA hasn’t approved any medications for impulsivity; but, medications for conditions like depression or ADHD can sometimes help with impulsive urges. For example, antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help with impulse control disorders.

For people with ADHD, medications like  amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall) or methylphenidate (Concerta, Daytrana, Methylin, Ritalin) might help with impulsivity. Sometimes, nonstimulant medications like clonidine and guanfacine can help with impulse control, too.