Impulsive Behavior Linked to Substance Use Disorder

With substance use disorders being associated with high impulsivity and sensation seeking, this study aimed to clarify whether impulsivity-related traits and sensation seeking predict substance-related problems.

Impulsiveness and sensation seeking were found to be associated with substance use-related problems, according to a recent study from Germany published in BMC Psychiatry.

The researchers assessed these two variables separately and “dimensionally” in a group of individuals with varying degrees of substance use — in the case of this study, alcohol. The goal was to assess whether impulsiveness predicted alcohol-related problems more so than the degree of alcohol use itself.

The researchers recruited participants through advertisements and flyers. Inclusion criteria included that the participants be aged between 19 and 40 years, use at least 1 substance once a month, be native German speaking, and have no substance use except nicotine on the day of the online survey.

The questionnaire asked about frequency and quantity of substance use, substance use disorder symptoms, and impulsive behavior.

The researchers found that sensation-seeking “was the strongest predictor for the degree of use, and the degree of use was the strongest predictor for substance-related problems,” the researchers stated. “Importantly, although the degree of use explains a large part of the variance in substance-related problems, impulsivity-related traits did explain variance in substance-related problems above and beyond the degree of use.”

The degree of substance use explained about 30% of the variance in the results, the researchers reported. And urgency, they found, was linked to both alcohol and other substance-related issues.

One limitation of the study was the delay-discounting questionnaire which used relatively low monetary amounts. Research has suggested that higher monetary offers better distinguish substance users from controls. In addition, because the participants were primarily educated individuals, further studies including a more representative sample are warranted.

“This study showed that the impulsivity-related traits of urgency and to some extent perseverance, but not sensation seeking, were specifically linked to substance-related problems, the dimension that is crucial for SUDs,” the researchers concluded. “A focus on these factors may help to identify individuals within substance-using populations who are more in need for preventive measures in order to avoid a transition to problematic substance use.”


Hildebrandt MK, Dieterich R, Endrass T. Disentangling substance use and related problems: urgency predicts substance-related problems beyond the degree of useBMC Psychiatry. Published online May 7, 2021. doi:10.1186/s12888-021-03240-z