Can’t stop acting reckless? New test predicts if impulsivity is pathological

BERKELEY, Calif. — Do you keep making impulsive decisions only to end up regretting your actions? Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley have developed a new test to help determine if your habit borders on the pathological. The study finds acting recklessly during emotional times has a connection to how fast a person reacts to stimulating, disturbing imagery.

The research team set out to better understand and measure “negative urgency,” a clinical variety of impulsivity linked to numerous issues including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, self-harm, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Scientists usually assess negative urgency using a survey, but in pursuit of a better option, the researchers put together an “emotional stop-signal task.”

“This new measure is exciting because it provides a more objective way to assess negative urgency, which predicts mental problems,” says study co-lead author Sheri Johnson, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology, in a university release.

Negative emotions impact impulsivity

A total of 450 people took part in this project, with 150 being psychiatric patients. To start, everyone filled out the current standard “behavior scale” measuring negative and positive urgency. Then, each person viewed a series of both comforting and disturbing photographs. For example, children playing with kittens or an emaciated famine victim. After viewing each scene, participants had to hit either a “positive” or “negative” button.

Randomly, the test would send out a “stop” signal following a disturbing image to keep the participants from reacting. Importantly, participants who showed signs of poor impulse control were often so quick to react that they had already pressed a button by the time the “stop” signal appeared. Even in the absence of a “stop” signal, these individuals still generally had a much harder time keeping their finger off the buttons.

“The results suggest that some people have more trouble controlling impulses that are driven by negative emotions. This is significant because, in a worst-case scenario, negative emotion-related impulsivity can lead to extreme behaviors like self-harm and suicide,” comments study co-lead author J.D. Allen, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and a researcher at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio.

Spotting the ‘warning system’ of mental health issues

Within social circles, people often view the “spontaneous friend” as the most fun or exciting to be around. At a certain point, however, too much impulsivity can be detrimental and even lead to self-destructive behavior.

“It’s normal to cry when you’re sad or to raise your voice when you’re angry,” Allen continues. “But if a person can’t stop crying once they start, or throws tantrums and gets aggressive, this may be a warning sign of underlying vulnerability to psychiatric problems and accompanying behavioral issues.”

A sub-section of the participants (61 psychiatric patients) actually took the test twice, once while in the hospital and again six months after their release. Results largely remained the same.

“This behavioral test might serve as an early warning system to identify those most at risk of mental illness and get them the care they need to manage or head off a full-blown psychiatric disorder,” Allen concludes.

The study is published in the journal Brain and Neuroscience Advances. 

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