Understanding impulsive behaviour

December 10, 2013

Helping offenders to control their impulses can reduce the risk of re-offending and help with anger control, according to research from Victoria University of Wellington.

Rebecca Bell, who will be awarded her PhD in Psychology this week, looked at —or the ability to think before acting—in men serving sentences in New Zealand prisons.

"There is a tendency to think about impulse control in terms of general personality and behaviour, but we have to work backwards from that and essentially guess what is going wrong in the cognitive sense," she says.

"Are people failing to think of the consequences? Do they find it hard to stop a habitual response? In order to help in the best way that we can, we need to know what is causing impulsive behaviour."

Rebecca carried out a series of simple impulse control tests with a group of criminal before and after an eight-month intensive rehabilitation programme. She tested decision-making, cognitive control, or the ability to direct thought processes to achieve goals, and motor impulse control, all of which need to function well to control impulses.

"The crux of decision-making is being able to attach emotions to previous experience, so we can draw on that emotion to help us make similar decisions in the future," explains Rebecca.

"Cognitive control is the ability to block out unhelpful thoughts and focus on the helpful ones and motor-impulse control is about physically stopping yourself doing something habitual."

She visited prisons in Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton, chosen because they have Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programmes, and worked with high-risk offenders with extensive criminal histories.

"Theories of antisocial behaviour tell us that high-risk offenders with extensive criminal histories should perform poorly on impulse control tests. But the majority of participants performed similarly to non-offenders, with the exception of cognitive control performance."

A quarter of the sample found it much harder than non-offenders to block out distraction from unhelpful thoughts and focus on the helpful ones.

"It is important that we identify who is struggling most with cognitive control before treatment even begins as this skill is crucial for learning in treatment and for implementing new skills," she says.

Following the treatment, decision-making and improved, with participants being more focused, attentive and less easily distracted.

Rebecca says the most promising thing about her research is that it challenges the view that offenders cannot control their impulses.

"Overall, the impulse skills are there so perhaps it's more about practice and motivation.

"Offenders need people to help show them how to call on their impulse control skills in the moment and why controlling problematic impulses is important for themselves, their families and their communities."

Explore further: Delayed brain development responsible for juvenile offender behavior

Related Stories

Delayed brain development responsible for juvenile offender behavior

June 29, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals researchers findings into the delayed development in the brains of juvenile offenders and the fact that this delayed development ...

Stronger sexual impulses, not weaker self-control, may explain why men cheat more than women, study reveals

September 19, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—A recently published study strongly suggests men succumb to sexual temptations more than women—for example, cheating on a partner—because they experience strong sexual impulses, not because they have ...

Researcher publishes a study of psychopathy and criminal behavior

June 18, 2013
University of Huddersfield researcher, Dr Daniel Boduszek, has co authored a an article in the Journal of Ciminal Psychology that analyses the relationship between psycopathy and criminal behaviour.

NYU study on incarcerated youth shows potential to lower anti-social behavior and recidivism

October 31, 2013
Researchers at the New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN), the University of Miami, and the Lionheart Foundation in Boston, found that mindfulness training, a meditation-based therapy, can improve attention skills ...

Regular cocaine and cannabis use may trigger addictive behaviours

October 28, 2013
New cocaine and cannabis research reveals that regular cannabis users have increased levels of impulsive behaviour. It had previously been argued that this increased impulsivity after cannabis administration was only experienced ...

Study: Parkinson's disease itself does not increase risk of gambling, shopping addiction

January 7, 2013
Parkinson's disease itself does not increase the risk of impulse control problems such as compulsive gambling and shopping that have been seen in people taking certain drugs for Parkinson's disease, according to new research ...

Recommended for you

Like adults, children show bias in attributing mental states to others

August 22, 2017
Young children are more likely to attribute mental states to characters that belong to the same group as them relative to characters that belong to an outside group, according to findings published in Psychological Science, ...

High moral reasoning associated with increased activity in the human brain's reward system

August 22, 2017
Individuals who have a high level of moral reasoning show increased activity in the brain's frontostriatal reward system, both during periods of rest and while performing a sequential risk taking and decision making task ...

Wealth disparity and family income impact the brain development of female youth

August 22, 2017
Female teenagers living in neighbourhoods with wide salary gaps and a low-income household show changes to their brain maturation that could indicate a higher risk of developing mental illness in adulthood, suggests a recently ...

Yoga and meditation improve mind-body health and stress resilience

August 22, 2017
Many people report positive health effects from practicing yoga and meditation, and experience both mental and physical benefits from these practices. However, we still have much to learn about how exactly these practices ...

Brain's self-regulation in teens at risk for obesity

August 22, 2017
In a small study that scanned the brains of teenagers while exposing them to tempting "food cues," researchers report that reduced activity in the brain's "self-regulation" system may be an important early predictor of adult ...

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.