Perspectives on Behavior Science

, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 291–322 | Cite as

Toward a Unifying Account of Impulsivity and the Development of Self-Control

  • Rodrigo SosaEmail author
  • Cristiano Valerio dos Santos
Original Research


Impulsivity has traditionally been thought to involve various behavioral traits that can be measured using different laboratory protocols. Whereas some authors regard different measures of impulsivity as reflecting fundamentally distinct and unrelated behavioral tendencies (fragmentation approach), others regard those different indexes as analogue forms of the same behavioral tendency, only superficially different (unification approach). Unifying accounts range from mere intuitions to more sophisticated theoretical systems. Some of the more complete attempts at unifying are intriguing but have validity weaknesses. We propose a new unifying attempt based on theoretical points posed by other authors and supplemented by theory and research on associative learning. We then apply these assumptions to characterize the paradigms used to study impulsivity in laboratory settings and evaluate their scope as an attempt at unification. We argue that our approach possesses a good balance of parsimony and empirical and theoretical grounding, as well as a more encompassing scope, and is more suitable for experimental testing than previous theoretical frameworks. In addition, the proposed approach is capable of generating a new definition of impulsivity and outlines a hypothesis of how self-control can be developed. Finally, we examine the fragmentation approach from a different perspective, emphasizing the importance of finding similarities among seemingly different phenomena.


Conditioned reinforcement Delay discounting Impulsiveness Negative contingency learning Pavlovian–operant interactions Response inhibition 



The preparation of this article was supported by the Dirección General de Asuntos del Personal Académico (DGAPA) postdoctoral fellowship grant (UNAM 2016–2017) and by the Sistema Nacional de Investigadores (SNI) grant (File 64324). The authors wish to thank the Facultad de Psicología and the Laboratorio de Mecanismos Neurales y Cognitivos del Aprendizaje. The technical revision of the initial draft of this article was funded by the head of the Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones en Comportamiento. The authors also wish to thank Peter Killeen for his useful comments on an earlier version of this article.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Escuela de PsicologíaUniversidad Anáhuac México SurMexico CityMexico
  2. 2.Facultad de PsicologíaUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoMéxico CityMexico
  3. 3.Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones en ComportamientoUniversidad de GuadalajaraGuadalajaraMexico

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