Deferred gratification, also known as impulse control, is an example of this, concerning impulses primarily relating to things that a person wants or desires.
In recent years, studies have linked impulsiveness to higher risks of smoking, drinking and drug abuse. People who attempt suicide score highly on measures of impulsivity, as do adolescents with eating problems. Aggression, compulsive gambling, severe personality disorders and attention deficit problems are all associated with high impulsiveness, a problem that affects an estimated 9 percent of Americans, according to a nationwide mental health survey completed last year.
Now researchers have begun to resolve the contrary nature of impulsivity, identifying the elements that distinguish benign experimentation from self-destructive acts. The latest work, in brain research and psychological studies, helps explain how impulsive tendencies develop and when they can lead people astray. A potent combination of genes and emotionally disorienting early experiences puts people at high risk, as do some very familiar personal instincts.
“What we’re seeing now,” said Charles S. Carver, a psychologist at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., “is a rapid convergence of evidence indicating that when the prefrontal cortical areas of the brain, the brain’s supervisory management system, are not functioning well, this interferes with deliberative behavior, and the consequences are often unpleasant.”
Few experts dispute that impulsiveness pays off in some situations and, perhaps, had evolutionary benefits. When life is short and dangerous, and resources are scarce, there is a premium on quick response. In studies of baboons and monkeys, researchers have found that animals that are impulsive as adolescents often become dominant as adults, when they moderate their confrontational urges.
In humans, impulsive behavior typically peaks in adolescence, when the prefrontal areas of the brain continue to develop, or soon after, in the young adult years, when it is culturally expected that people will test their limits, psychologists have found.
Yet new research suggests that a taste for danger or conflict is not enough to produce persistent, ruinous impulsivity.