In preparation for Sarah Fischer's June 1 featured PBB article, I wanted to provide another look at two of the variables included in the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale. If you read our prior article on the UPPS-P, you'll recall that the measure breaks the idea of "impulsivity" into five distinct subscales:
- Positive urgency
- Negative urgency
- Sensation seeking
- (lack of) Perseverance
- (lack of) Premeditation
Today's article takes a closer look at positive and negative urgency in an effort to illustrate how important it is to differentiate between specific forms of impulsivity.
Both positive and negative urgency refer to a tendency on the part of an individual to behave rashly in response to emotions. In other words, these variables do not simply reflect a general tendency not to think before acting, regardless of context. Individuals with high levels of positive urgency tend to lose control over their behavior when they feel exhilarated or happy, whereas individuals with high levels of negative urgency tend to lose control over their behavior when experiencing sadness, anger, fear, or other negative emotions. An easy way to think about this would be to compare high levels of positive or negative urgency to a faulty brake pedal. When individuals experience intense emotions, it is as though they are driving a car at a dangerously fast speed. For individuals with elevated levels of positive or negative urgency, the brake pedal either does not work or is simply highly ineffective, thus making them less able to stop themselves from going off the road. The problem is thus not an overly sensitive gas pedal - the actual experience of negative or positive emotions is not necessarily any more intense than for individuals low in positive and negative urgency - but rather a failure to inhibit behavior that they would be unlikely to engage in if not for their vulnerability to their particular emotional state.
For individuals high in positive urgency, under-controlled behaviors are often used in an effort to prolong or intensify positive emotions. For individuals high in negative urgency, on the other hand, under-controlled behaviors are often used in an effort to escape negative emotions. An important distinction should be made here, as it further clarifies the importance of considering these variables separately rather than simply talking about a broader term like "impulsivity" or even simply lumping urgency into a single category. The drive to increase or prolong positive emotions is not the same as the drive to reduce negative emotions. As it turns out, positive and negative emotions are not simply on opposite ends of a single continuum. Instead, they are each their own, unique continuum. Depression gives us a good way to consider this point. There are two primary symptoms of depression, at least one of which must be present for an individual to qualify for a DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of depression: depressed mood and anhedonia. Anhedonia refers to an inability to experience pleasure or joy, even in response to things that previously induced such feelings. So, an individual can be diagnosed with depression even in the absence of depressed mood as long as they are experiencing severely reduced positive affect. The depression diagnosis thus does a good job of pointing out that "not being able to feel good" is not the same thing as "feeling bad" and "being able to feel good" does not mean "not feeling bad." Bringing this point back to the central focus of this article, positive and negative urgency are not simply different ways of saying that we all want to feel better. One is saying that an individual can not tolerate feeling badly whereas the other one is saying that an individual essentially becomes intoxicated in response to feeling good. An individual can certainly exhibit high levels of both of these variables simultaneously, but this does not make them the same thing.
To further clarify the importance of distinguishing between these two variables - and other aspects of impulsivity as well - rather than simply lumping them together into a single, broader category, I would like to call attention to some of the empirical research that has been conducted on this matter. This research is summarized extremely well in an article by Melissa Cyders and Greg Smith (2008) published in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin. In a section of their paper detailing the differences between positive and negative urgency, Cyders and Smith first point out that, while positive and negative urgency are distinct from one another, they are significantly correlated and predict some of the same behaviors, including problematic drinking and gambling. The vast majority of the research, however, highlights the differences between the two variables. Even in a behavior such as problematic gambling, for which both positive and negative urgency are significant predictors, there are important distinctions. Whereas negative urgency only predicts the degree to which an individual currently engages in problematic gambling, positive urgency has been shown to predict increases in problematic gambling over the course of a year in college freshmen (Cyders et al., 2007). Similarly, only positive urgency prospectively predicted illegal drug use and risky sexual behavior during the first year of college (Zapolski, Cyders, Rainer, & Smith, 2007). Additionally, whereas several studies have indicated that negative urgency predicts bulimic symptoms such as binge eating and purging (Anestis, Selby, Fink, & Joiner, 2007; Anestis, Selby, & Joiner, 2007; Fischer, Anderson, & Smith, 2004; Fischer, Smith, & Anderson, 2003), positive urgency is not related to bulimic behaviors (Cyders et al., 2007).
Perhaps the greatest evidence for the importance of distinguishing between these two variables came from a pair of straight forward, but highly important findings: negative but not positive urgency predicts the use of maladaptive behaviors in response to negative emotions (Cyders et al., 2007) whereas positive but not negative urgency predicts the use of maladaptive behaviors in response to positive emotions (Cyders & Smith, 2007, 2008). In other words, individuals with high levels of negative urgency are not at an increased risk for losing control of their behaviors when feeling good and individuals with high levels of positive urgency are not at an increased risk for losing control of their behaviors when they feel bad. Each type of urgency is specific to positive or negative emotions.
I realize that, when we talk about individual difference variables such as positive and negative urgency, the article can start to feel highly scientific and esoteric and become difficult to relate to, but we at Psychotherapy Brown Bag feel strongly that it is pivotal to find a way to bridge this gap and to explain these topics in a way that appeals to a broader audience less inclined to spend their days reading empirical studies in psychological journals (we realize not everyone gets the same nerdy pleasure from this as we do). To do so, I ask that you think about this topic in a fairly straight forward way. Consider the last time you were upset and felt tempted to do something you would have later regretted. Did you feel part of you that resisted that impulse - that asked you to consider the repercussions of that behavior and come up with an alternative response? What about the last time you felt extremely excited and were having a great time. Did you feel tempted to do something to sustain that feeling or prolong the evening that, in all likelihood, would have caused you problems later on? If so and you resisted, what kept you from taking that risky leap? For individuals with high levels of positive or negative urgency, that innate stopping mechanism is ether absent or weak, and resisting strong impulses in the face of particular emotions is extremely difficult. It's not that these individuals are out of control all of the time or do not care about consequences. It is simply that, in the context of particular feelings, they become vulnerable to using problematic behaviors that accomplish a short term goal (e.g., reducing negative emotions) at great long term expense.
Importantly, by measuring variables like positive and negative urgency, we can learn to what degree individuals are vulnerable to using particular behaviors in certain contexts and work to develop skills to counteract these vulnerabilities before they become a problem. Research into individual difference variables thus serves a potentially invaluable purpose: identifying and subsequently reducing risk before unbearable costs are created. Considering positive and negative urgency rather than simply thinking about "impulsivity" is thus useful in the same way thinking about sadness or anger is more useful than simply saying you feel "bad." We learn more about what is really going on, what might happen next, and what can be done to prevent harm.
There is a lot more research out there on the UPPS-P, some of it already published and some of it ongoing at the moment. We will cover many of those studies in future articles. In the meantime, we eagerly await the PBB contribution of Sarah Fischer, whose work has driven much of the research on the UPPS-P - a quick look at how many times she has been cited in our UPPS-P articles will attest to this fact - for further clarification of the utility of this and other related topics.
If you would like to learn more about these topics, we encourage you to browse our online store, which features a variety of products based on empirical research. Some of these products are aimed at professionals (e.g., treatment manuals) whereas others are aimed at a broader audience seeking to obtain accurate information on topics related to mental health. Additionally, please feel free to contact us with questions regarding suggested readings.