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Impulsive Decision-Making

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Decision-making can range from a highly rational style involving careful consideration of cognitive cues to a very impulsive act-without-thinking process that relies primarily on affective and physiological cues. Impulsive decision-makers are those who operate on the far end of this decision-making continuum. Whereas rational decision-makers carefully consider beliefs about the consequences of their actions when making decisions, impulsive decision-makers often fail to even consider such consequences, relying instead on cues that are often salient in the immediate present. As a result, individuals with an impulsive decision-making style often make decisions without a great deal of thought, fail to plan ahead for a variety of situations, and are more likely to act on impulse as compared to their rational decision-making counterparts (Donohew et al., 2000, 2004).

Impulsive decision-making is not, in and of itself, believed to be a personality trait. It is, however, thought to be a tendency that flows from the trait of impulsivity. Impulsivity itself is conceptualized in different ways by different researchers in the field. For instance, some researchers treat impulsivity as a unidimensional trait (Grano et al., 2004), whereas others have provided evidence for multiple dimensions of impulsivity, identifying two (Dawe & Loxton, 2004) or as many as four dimensions (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001). The four-dimensional conceptualization of impulsivity includes: 1) urgency, 2) lack of premeditation, 3) lack of perseverance, and 4) sensation-seeking. Additionally, whereas other researchers view impulsivity and sensation-seeking (or thrill-seeking) as a single “supertrait” (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000), some view impulsivity and sensation-seeking as different, albeit related dimensions (Donohew et al., 2000, 2004).

RELATION OF IMPULSIVE DECISION-MAKING TO PERSONALITY

While impulsivity is included at some level in many theories of personality, precisely how it fits into such theories, as well as how much emphasis it receives, tends to vary (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001). For instance, Eysenck and Eysenck's (1985) Three Factor Theory of personality focuses on the roles of neuroticism, extraversion, and psychoticism in an explication of personality processes. It considers impulsivity to consist of two components: venturesomeness and impulsiveness, which are thought to correspond to the extraversion and psychoti-cism factors, respectively.

McCrae and Costa's (1990) Five Factor Model of personality is focused on neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, each of which is composed of six facets. In this model, impulsivity is represented by a number of facets across the factors. For instance, the neuroticism factor contains an impulsiveness facet and the conscientiousness factor contains both self-control and deliberation facets. Facets on other dimensions, such as extraversion's excitement-seeking facet, also overlap with conceptualizations of impulsivity (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001).

Finally, Zuckerman and colleagues' (1993) Alternative Five Factor Model gives impulsivity perhaps its most prominent role compared to these other theories, combining it with sensation-seeking in a single “supertrait” termed “impulsive sensation-seeking.” This model considers impulsive sensation-seeking to be one of five major traits that drive personality. The others are neuroticism-anxiety, aggression-hostility, activity, and sociability. Although early work with this model focused solely on the role of sensation-seeking as a predictor of a variety of behaviors, later work combined sensation-seeking with impulsivity to form this single trait (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000).

IMPULSIVE DECISION-MAKING AND ACADEMIC OUTCOMES

One question concerns how impulsivity and impulsive decision-making affect behaviors. A number of studies exist on this topic across a variety of areas, with the overall theme being one of association with maladaptive and problem behaviors. For instance, impulsivity has been found to be related to a variety of antisocial behaviors, delinquency, and a lack of social adjustment (Cooper et al., 2003; Schwartz et al., 1999) and, thus, is a focal point among many theories of crime (Lynam & Miller, 2004). Impulsivity is a key diagnostic criterion for numerous disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; White-side et al., 2005). Further, impulsive decision-making (and more generally, impulsivity) has been widely studied in the area of health risk behaviors among youth, exhibiting positive associations with alcohol use, drug use, risky sexual behavior, eating disorders, and even body piercing (Cooper et al., 2000, 2003; Dawe & Loxton, 2004; Donohew et al., 2000, 2004; Greif et al., 1999; Hoyle et al., 2000; Zucker-man & Kuhlman, 2000).

In the specific realm of education, impulsivity has been found to relate to, and may adversely affect, a number of key academic outcomes. Indeed, the educational process is a long-term, goal-oriented task. Given this fact, theoretically it might be expected that such an undertaking would be adversely affected by impulsivity, given that impulsive individuals exhibit a tendency to act on immediate demands instead of making decisions based on long-term goals (Spinella & Miley, 2003).

The research as of 2008 in the area of impulsivity and academic outcomes does, in fact, bear out this correlation. Impulsivity has been shown to be related to educational underachievement in a number of studies (Cooper et al., 2003; Lynam & Miller, 2004; Spinella & Miley, 2004; Weithorn, Kagen, & Marcus, 1984). In fact, those who are impulsive are more likely to fall behind their peers and achieve lower grades compared to those who exhibit a more rationale style. For instance, Meade (1981) found that first grade students with a low socio-economic status who exhibited impulsive behavior had lower grades and lower achievement scores than their peers, even when IQ was held constant. Among older students, another study found impulsivity and college students' grades to be inversely related, with higher impulsivity relating to lower grades (Spinella & Miley, 2003). Some researchers have even gone as far as to suggest that there is a positive association between impulsivity and academic failure (Vigil-Colet & Morales-Vives, 2005).

In addition, although limited research has been conducted on the association between impulsivity and academic cheating, some studies have examined the link between the two (Anderman & Cupp, 2006; Kelly & Worell, 1978; Miller et al, 2007). For instance, in one study, college students were given the opportunity to falsify scores in order to obtain course credit. Among the female participants, the students who cheated were significantly more impulsive than were the non-cheaters. Another study demonstrated a positive association between impulsivity and academic cheating among a large sample of high school students (Anderman & Cupp, 2006). These researchers have suggested that impulsive students experience difficulty with self-regulation, which leads to decreased self-control, and, in turn, increased cheating.

Finally, there is a large literature in the specific area of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is itself characterized by impulsivity, inattention, and hyper-activity (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Hoza, Owens, & Pelham, 1999). In the context of ADHD, impul-sivity can manifest itself in a number of ways, including interrupting others, blurting out answers, not listening to instructions before beginning a task, and not waiting for a turn. A criterion of ADHD is that such difficulties impair functioning in academic, occupational, or social settings (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Academic under-achievement has also been identified as a primary long-term outcome associated with ADHD (Manuzza et al., 1993), with up to 80% of students with ADHD exhibiting problems in academic performance (Cantwell & Baker, 1991). Though impulsivity is a part of ADHD, impulsivity and impulsive decision-making can occur exclusive of ADHD (Furman, 2005). Thus, both impulsive ADHD and impulsive non-ADHD students may be at risk of similar poor academic outcomes (Merrell, & Tymms, 2001).

SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTITIONERS

One challenge is identifying strategies to be used by those who work with impulsive youth. A primary obstacle which impulsive students struggle with is their lack of metacognition, that is, their ability to be reflective and think about thinking. Therefore, it is important to help impulsive students learn to think about making decisions instead of acting before thinking. Another general consideration is the fact that impulsive students do not consider alternatives effectively; therefore, it is important for those working with such students to emphasize the consideration of alternative options and alternative ways of thinking in decision-making (Margolis et al., 1977).

Moreover, many strategies for reducing students' impulsive behaviors have been reported in the literature. Cognitive and/or behavioral strategies are popular approaches given that students' problems with impulsivity are in regards to their thinking and behaviors (Baer & Nietzel, 1991). Self-instruction training, in which students learn to guide themselves through tasks by asking and then answering a series of questions, is a commonly used treatment (Baer & Nietzel, 1991). For example, in one self-instruction procedure, the impulsive student learns to size up the demands of a task, cognitively rehearse the task, guide their performance through self-instruction, and where appropriate, give self-reinforcements (Meichenbaum & Goodman, 1971).

Finally, the need for effective in-classroom interventions for impulsive students has also been identified. Given that there is a connection between impulsivity and a lack of metacognition, in-classroom interventions may help in this area (Bornas & Servera, 1992). In-class training, as opposed to out-of-class training, may be important in helping students to generalize learned skills to the classroom environment. Having students use strategies that are taught in real learning contexts may be important (Bornas & Servera, 1992), as is having peers model appropriate behaviors (Margolis et al., 1977). In addition, impulsive students may benefit from a classroom atmosphere that is mastery-oriented (Anderman & Cupp, 2006).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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