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Concept of time may predict impulsive behavior, research finds

Monday, Sept. 15, 2014



MANHATTAN — Obesity, gambling, substance abuse and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are just some disorders that have been linked to impulsive behavior, but the factors contributing to that impulsivity are still a mystery. Research from Kansas State University suggests that understanding the concept of time could predict an individual's impulsive choices.

"Our research suggests that individuals with greater self-control have a better understanding of delays, which means that they can wait for a longer period of time to earn a larger reward," said Kimberly Kirkpatrick, professor of psychological sciences. "For example, we know that preparing a meal at home is a healthier option than fast food. However, impulsive people are more likely to eat fast food instead of preparing a meal. It may not be because they don't understand the health benefits, but rather that they lack delay tolerance, leading to the impulsive decision of opting for fast food."

Kirkpatrick; Aaron Smith, department of psychology at the University of Kentucky; and Andrew Marshall, doctoral student in psychology at Kansas State University, published "Mechanisms of Impulsive Choice: I. Individual Differences in Interval Timing and Reward Processing" in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

The researchers studied rats to determine if particular factors affect individual choices, particularly looking at how long rats can wait to earn a larger reward. Rats were given two different levers to push. One lever produced a small treat after a short time, the other lever produced a larger treat that required waiting longer — a scenario Kirkpatrick said was common for humans.

"We don't often know the outcome of a situation until we have experienced it," she said. “For example, we find out what restaurants have faster service than others and we use that information to make our decision about where to eat in the future."

The researchers determined delay tolerance through progressive intervals. Researchers methodically increased the amount of time before distributing rewards. The rats that could endure longer time intervals before getting food had more self-control and also were better at timing the intervals. The impulsive rats showed poor timing abilities and were more intolerant of the delays.

"The impulsive rats didn't have the ability to wait for a reward because they didn't understand time," Kirkpatrick said. "We consider decision-making a malleable trait and believe it can be improved through intensive training. Improving the concept of time could help those vulnerable to impulsive behaviors."

The researchers' findings about why certain individuals are more impulsive than others could lead to behavioral interventions instead of the use of medication for clinical disorders, said Kirkpatrick. She hopes to develop alternative treatment methods for impulsive behaviors through behavioral interventions designed to improve the individual's understanding of time.

A National Institute of Mental Health grant supported the research.


Kimberly Kirkpatrick



Written by

Lindsey Elliott

At a glance

New study finds that individuals with impulsive behaviors have poor timing abilities. Researchers hope this finding will lead to behavioral interventions for clinical disorders like substance abuse and obesity that are linked to impulsive behavior.