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Understand Impulsivity to Understand ADHD

Talk about ADHD and two kinds of symptoms immediately come up: hyperactive symptoms and inattentive symptoms. After all, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, that’s what’s in the name.

In the DSM, though, “hyperactive” symptoms are actually referred to as “hyperactive-impulsive” symptoms, reflecting the central role impulsivity plays in ADHD.

Impulsivity is a tendency to act without thinking ahead. People who are more impulsive are more likely to act without planning ahead and considering consequences. They tend to act, well, on impulse.

ImpulsiveAs the DSM’s “hyperactive-impulsive” language suggests, impulsivity is a factor in many of the symptoms we think of as the “H” part of ADHD. Things like interrupting other people and being impatient all have to do with acting without thinking.

What’s less obvious from the DSM’s stark delineation of “inattentive” and “hyperactive-impulsive” symptoms is that impulsivity is often a part of the former as well as the latter. In practice, the boundary between these two kinds of symptoms isn’t so clearly defined.

For example, being unable to focus on a task and getting sidetracked by more interesting things that grab your attention is an “inattentive” problem. But it’s also an “impulsivity” problem since distraction is a kind of acting without thinking.

Procrastination is another example of an “inattentive” symptom that’s all about acting without considering consequences. Research has shown that impulsivity and a tendency to procrastination are traits that are highly linked at the genetic level. In fact, they may be entirely indistinguishable, meaning the genes that influence how impulsive you are overlap completely with the genes that influence how much you procrastinate.

As you can start to see, impulsivity is everywhere you look in ADHD. These are only a few symptoms, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any ADHD symptom that doesn’t somehow relate to impulsivity.

What that means is that since impulsivity is a part of a lot of your ADHD problems, it’s worth factoring impulsivity into your ADHD solutions. One thing to keep in mind is that impulsivity is a trait that works better in some environments than others.

Being able to act on the spur of the moment without planning ahead can even be helpful in environments that are fast-moving or unpredictable or in environments that require creativity. On the other hand, acting on impulse can mess you up in situations that demand a deliberate, methodical, self-disciplined approach.

Impulsivity is like the glue that holds inattentive and hyperactive symptoms together. Reevaluating your symptoms and coping mechanisms in terms of “impulsivity” and not just “inattention” and “hyperactivity” can give you a new perspective on how ADHD affects your life. It can give you insight into your symptoms, which is only be a good thing when it comes to managing ADHD.

How does impulsivity affect your life? Please share below!

Image: Flickr/Vimal Kumar under CC BY-NC 2.0

Understand Impulsivity to Understand ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). Understand Impulsivity to Understand ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Jan 2017
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