Impulsive Action And Impulsive Inaction: Toward an integrative theory of impulsivity

Leila Guller, Lauren Boyle, Nichea S. Spillane, Gregory T. Smith

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Historically, the construct of impulsivity, also referred to as disinhibition orbehavioral undercontrol, has been understood to reflect the tendency to act in rash, illadvisedways. In recent years, theory and research have moved toward a different andbroader understanding of impulsivity. Carver, Johnson, and Joorman (2008) defined aconstruct called reflexive responsivity to emotion (RRE), which refers to the tendency torespond to intense negative emotions in an immediate way, with the goal of distractingoneself from, reducing, or avoiding subjective distress. From their perspective, thetraditional conceptualization of impulsive action is only one form of RRE. The impulsiveactions of heavy drinking, disordered eating, smoking, and gambling (as well as otherbehaviors) often serve the function of distracting one from the distress one was in prior tothe impulsive act. The second form of RRE is referred to as impulsive inaction. Impulsiveinaction refers to a tendency not to act, when acting would better serve one's interests. Attimes, inaction helps one avoid intense subjective distress. Examples include not askingone's boss for a raise or not asking a date to the prom. Those two forms of inaction areimpulsive in the sense that they are often not chosen because, after careful consideration,one believes they meet one's ongoing needs and goals. Rather, they are chosen withoutreflection because they provide immediate relief from distress, even though they areinconsistent with one's needs and goals. This chapter reviews these recent advances inthe context of the traditional conceptualization of externalizing and internalizingpsychopathology, and addresses several questions: (1) Is there empirical evidence thatthere are common risk factors for impulsive action and impulsive inaction? (2) What arethe neurobiological underpinnings of RRE? To what degree do the same brain systemsunderlie impulsive action and impulsive inaction? (3) What factors influence whether agiven person is more disposed toward impulsive action or impulsive inaction? (4) Howcan we understand RRE in the context of development?

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPsychology of Impulsivity
Subtitle of host publicationNew Research
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781633219441
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology (all)
  • Medicine (all)


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