Toward a Unifying Account of Impulsivity and the Development of Self-Control

Perspect Behav Sci. 2018 Feb 15;42(2):291-322. doi: 10.1007/s40614-018-0135-z. eCollection 2019 Jun.


Impulsivity has traditionally been thought to involve various behavioral traits that can be measured using different laboratory protocols. Whereas some authors regard different measures of impulsivity as reflecting fundamentally distinct and unrelated behavioral tendencies (fragmentation approach), others regard those different indexes as analogue forms of the same behavioral tendency, only superficially different (unification approach). Unifying accounts range from mere intuitions to more sophisticated theoretical systems. Some of the more complete attempts at unifying are intriguing but have validity weaknesses. We propose a new unifying attempt based on theoretical points posed by other authors and supplemented by theory and research on associative learning. We then apply these assumptions to characterize the paradigms used to study impulsivity in laboratory settings and evaluate their scope as an attempt at unification. We argue that our approach possesses a good balance of parsimony and empirical and theoretical grounding, as well as a more encompassing scope, and is more suitable for experimental testing than previous theoretical frameworks. In addition, the proposed approach is capable of generating a new definition of impulsivity and outlines a hypothesis of how self-control can be developed. Finally, we examine the fragmentation approach from a different perspective, emphasizing the importance of finding similarities among seemingly different phenomena.

Keywords: Conditioned reinforcement; Delay discounting; Impulsiveness; Negative contingency learning; Pavlovian–operant interactions; Response inhibition.