Being impulsive can be a sign of poor mental health, research finds.
People who are impulsive tend to prefer a small immediate reward over a larger reward later on.
Impulsive people tend to act on their immediate thoughts and emotions without thinking about the consequences.
In other words, impulsive people want to have fun now, not later — even if waiting is more sensible.
People who are depressed, have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or some eating disorders are more likely to be impulsive.
Psychologists can measure this type of impulsivity with a test of ‘delay discounting’.
Delay discounting is the idea that people tend to discount a reward more, the longer the delay until they receive it.
So, psychologically, $5 right now is worth more than $10 in three weeks time.
Or, as the proverb has it: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
People who can delay their gratification find it easier to wait for their rewards.
However, people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder find it particularly hard to delay gratification.
The conclusions come from a review of 43 separate studies.
Dr Michael Amlung, the study’s first author, said:
“The revelation that delay discounting is one of these ‘trans-diagnostic’ processes will have a significant effect on the future of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment.”
Among people with mental health problems, though, anorexia was the exception.
People with anorexia tend to make excessively self-controlling decisions.
This makes sense given that anorexia is a disorder characterised by a very high level of self-control over eating behaviours.
Professor Randi McCabe, study co-author, said:
“Examining factors that cut across psychiatric disorders, such as delay discounting, helps to illuminate commonalities and distinguishing characteristics amongst disorders that then guide further research on treatment and prevention.”
The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry (Amlung et al., 2019).