Impulsive Behavior Versus Addiction

An important question that has been raised by professionals is whether certain behaviors are addictions or whether they belong in the category of impulse-control disorders. Certainly it is believed that there is overlap between the two.

In order to make a comparison between impulse-control disorders and addictions, one must first understand what impulse-control disorders are. Impulse-control disorders are described as failure to resist impulses, drives, and/or temptations to perform acts that may be harmful to the person or to others. The person will feel a mounting accumulation of tension or arousal prior to engaging in the behavior and will then experience pleasure, gratification, or relief when the behavior is finished. The person may or may not experience guilt or regret afterward.

Behaviors that have typically been included in the category of impulse-control disorders are intermittent explosive disorder (a failure to resist aggressive impulses), kleptomania (a failure to resist the impulse to steal), pyromania (fire setting for pleasure or relief of tension), pathological gambling, and trichotillomania (pulling out of one's own hair). Compulsive shopping, compulsive computer use, and compulsive sexual behaviors have been proposed as additional impulse-control disorders.

More details of these behaviors will be discussed later. Although there may be an obsessive quality to these behaviors, they are not considered to be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and OCD is not included in the category of impulse-control disorders or addictions.


There is a very high co-occurrence between addictive behaviors and other mental health disorders. Mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, and antisocial personality disorder are commonly seen in individuals struggling with addictive behaviors. One possible and plausible explanation is that addictive behaviors may initially be used inappropriately to relieve symptoms of other mental health problems.

At this time, there are no definitive answers as to whether impulse-control disorders and addictions are distinctly different or two names for the same problem. Research is only beginning to focus on understanding these behaviors in more depth. There are significant indications that biology and genetics as well as environmental factors are involved in these disorders.

Technology is now available to study these areas, and it will be exciting to see what knowledge will be gained from ongoing research. Common links between addictions and impulse-control disorders clearly exist. The impulsive nature of the behaviors, poor decision-making abilities, and the failure to accurately evaluate risks versus rewards are evident in both addictive and impulse-control disorders.

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