Impulsivity and Postponement of Gratification: I Want it Now!

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Impulsivity and Postponement of Gratification: I Want it Now!

Procrastination is the thief of time. (Edward Young, Night Thoughts, 1742)

While we deliberate how to begin a thing, it grows too late to begin it. (Quintellan, Institutotio Oratorio, 35—100 AD)

Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes sin’s a pleasure. (Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1810)

Consider the ten simple statements below:

• I often do things without thinking.

• I am not very serious minded.

• I usually make up my mind very quickly.

• I generally seek new and exciting experiences and sensations.

• I am pretty happy-go-lucky.

• I can put my thoughts into words pretty quickly.

• I admit I often lose interest in things I have started.

• I really get impatient waiting.

• I don’t like and am not good at business planning.

• I am not the person to ’sleep on it’ before making a decision.

If you say ’true’ or ’yes’ to seven or more you would probably be called impulsive. This means your work is often fast but inaccurate. Impulsive people are often stable and sociable, but not very conscientious. They prefer ’explosive’ to ’endurance’ sports. They tend to have more traffic accidents and violations.

Impulsivity is a tendency to act capriciously, with little or no planning forethought, reflection or, more importantly, consideration of any consequences. Impulsive actions are signs of poor emotional regulation which have been said to have two identifiable parts: acting without any planning deliberation, and second, choosing short-term gains over long-term ones.

Impulsivity is both a facet of personality, often related to psychoticism or low conscientiousness. It is also associated with various disorders, including ADHD, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. Neuropsychology suggests that there are specific brain regions involved in impulsive behaviour and that genetics may also be important.

More interestingly, impulsive people are highly sensitive to reward cues but curiously insensitive to punishment cues. This, in effect, means they are better managed by promises of quick, sexy, exciting rewards than by the threat of dire punishment. Impulsivity can be exaggerated by caffeine and tends to be more noticeable in the evening than the morning.


There are benefits of what is called functional impulsivity. The functional (that is good) impulsive can quickly take advantage of unexpected opportunities. They can rapidly put their thoughts into words. They can think on their feet. They are mentally agile. The bright functional impulsive is an asset; the dim one much less so.

But equally they can be lethal. They need someone to temper their enthusiasm, to consider consequences, to plan ahead and to keep persisting in the face of failure or setbacks. Impulsives need control mechanisms to moderate their fast tempo and love of reward. These mechanisms may lie in other aspects of their personality. Thus the brighter the impulsive the better — the more they see consequences and size-up a situation wisely. And the more anxiety-prone (up to a point, of course) the better because this tempers the risky, recklessness that is so often associated with impulsives.

The dysfunctional impulsive can be an accident waiting to happen. These people say whatever comes into their heads without thinking first. They make appointments without checking they can honour them. They buy things before considering whether they can afford them. They jump in, just do it before considering difficulties, implications, pros and cons. They don’t like careful reasoning.

So it’s a trade-off. A bright impulsive person in a fast moving products business can be an advantage. But impulsivity like all human characteristics (except handedness), is normally distributed in a bell curve. Most of us have moderate impulsivity. So it’s not a case of all or nothing. To be on the high side of the impulsivity spectrum brings its advantages and disadvantages. The adventurous, active, enthusiastic impulsive can bring dynamism to any group. But the disorderly, anti-analytic, plan-less impulsive can lead any well thought-through plan to doom and destruction.


Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow test: Mastering self-control. New York, NY, US: Little, Brown and Co.

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 65—94.

Tobin, R.M., & Graziano, W.G. (2010). Delay of gratification: A review of fifty years of regulation research. In R.H. Hoyle (Ed.), Handbook of personality and self-regulation (pp. 47—63). Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.