A framework and toolkit for understanding impulsive action

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Sch of Psychology


Impulsivity is a key factor in understanding individual behaviour, but tasks used to measure it show surprisingly low correlation, meaning that we do not really know what they are measuring.

The project will underpin the area with neglected reliability work, and then proceed to apply computational modelling approaches developed for decision making to provide a framework for impulsivity tasks.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research, and how?

Beyond the academics involved in impulsivity research (see Academic Beneficiaries), our Model-Based Impulsivity Toolkit (ModBIT) will benefit charities, social workers, professional psychologists (educational, occupational, clinical), economists, and health and rehabilitation professionals who are engaged in developing interventions for problem behaviours associated with impulsivity and response control. These impulsivity-related behaviours are widespread, and include gambling, excess alcohol consumption, drug-taking, smoking, excessive eating, risky sexual behaviour, aggression and violence, poor school attendance and performance. Impulsivity is also implicated in most mental health problems, many crimes, severe debt and marital breakdown. How exactly different aspects of impulsivity, and particularly response control (upon which we focus here), underlie each of these areas is not yet well understood, and neither is it well understood how individual differences in response control should be best measured. Successful interventions are severely hampered by this lack of knowledge. As such, the project has direct potential to improve the nation's health and wealth.

The ultimate beneficiaries will be those people who are currently suffering as a result of impulsivity-related behaviour. The sufferers include both the individuals carrying out the impulsive behaviours, and those affected by them, whether they are direct victims of crime or aggression, or more widely, belong to families or communities affected, for example, by debt, excessive alcohol consumption or any other of the impulsivity related problems. The majority of the population will be directly or indirectly affected by at least one of these issues, or have friends and relatives who are. Financially, impulsivity-related behaviour costs the nation billions of pounds annually (alcohol-related cost alone is estimated to be £20bn-55bn by the House of Commons HealthCommittee, 2009-10).

Better interventions and better knowledge of these problems will allow policy makers and budget holders to be better informed for optimally directing policy and efficiently making use of limited budgets.

The timescale is likely to be as follows. Within the project itself, as soon as objective 1 is complete, other ongoing research projects will be better informed, and therefore will benefit from improved likelihood of success. Cumulatively, this effect could be very great, since there are over 1000 research publications on impulsivity each year, many of these using response control tasks and currently limited by the lack of guidance for their optimal use (see e.g. the CNTRICS project for an example of how researchers in high-cost large-scale projects must currently choose tasks without good psychometric information, http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/content/35/1/115.full).

After the completion of objectives 2 and 3 (i.e., towards the end of the project), the researcher-oriented parts of our toolkit (ModBIT) will be available to further support this research effort, based on the successful example set by brain imaging research (see pathways to impact). At this point, the prototype will be developed for wider use by non-academics: charities, social workers, professional psychologists (educational, occupational, clinical), economists, and health and rehabilitation professionals. This is the point at which marked improvements to intervention, and more precise measurement of such improvements, will become possible. We will apply for knowledge transfer funds to further develop the toolkit in conjunction with specific users.


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Campbell AE (2014) Acute effects of alcohol on stimulus-induced gamma oscillations in human primary visual and motor cortices. in Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology
Harrison JJ (2015) Quick phases of infantile nystagmus show the saccadic inhibition effect. in Investigative ophthalmology & visual science
Description We have discovered that laboratory measures of impulsivity are not nearly as reliable as previously thought, and that this is actually expected from the way they are designed.

We are working on models to help this problem. The grant is not complete yet.
Exploitation Route Academics can take them forward now. But the grant is not complete yet.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare,Other