Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

UPPS Model of Impulsivity

  • Jasmyn Sanders
  • Alexandra R. Hershberger
  • Melissa A. CydersEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_2131-1

Synonyms

Definition

Although impulsivity is one of the most prevalent risk factors for a wide range of clinical disorders, problems, and risk-taking behaviors (e.g., Evenden 1999; Zapolski et al. 2010a), the use of different conceptualizations for impulsivity is problematic. Whiteside and Lynam (2001) created the UPPS model of impulsive behavior in order to synthesize existing impulsivity-related scales and definitions into one comprehensive, multidimensional scale of impulsive personality. The UPPS-P scale has since become an increasingly popular gold standard for the measurement of multiple separate, though related, aspects of impulsivity-related tendencies. The use of this scale has improved psychometric measurement of impulsivity while at the same time improving the prediction of different forms of risk-taking behaviors. This entry will describe the development of the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale, discuss the research and clinical applications of this approach, and use two risk-taking behaviors, nicotine use and sexual risk-taking, to highlight emerging work in research and clinical practice through the use of this scale.

Introduction

Impulsivity-related traits have been recognized in psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience, since the middle of the nineteenth century: Esquirol (1845) introduced the term “monomania,” a term used to classify disorders of impulse control, Ferrier (1878) used his case study of Phineas Gage to illustrate shifts in impulsivity-related traits following Gage’s frontal lobe damage, and impulsivity-related traits were mentioned throughout the texts of Kraepelin (1904), Freud (1920), and Fenichel (1945). Not surprisingly, many more definitions have been developed throughout history, leading to numerous variations in definition and measurement, such as acting without thinking, inattention, hyperactivity, having trouble controlling impulses, inability to wait, and lack of future orientation, among many other definitions (Evenden 1999). Although impulsivity is one of the most widespread risk factors for a wide range of clinical disorders, problems, and risk-taking behaviors (e.g., Evenden 1999; Zapolski et al. 2010a), the use of different conceptualizations for impulsivity is problematic, in that it leads to inconsistent findings across studies, masks relationships that occur with one form of impulsivity but not another, and waters down the sizes of effects for the prediction of risk-taking outcomes (Smith et al. 2003). Therefore, synthesis of these different conceptualizations was necessary for progress in science and improvement in clinical applications to mitigate the effects of impulsivity for a wide range of clinical problems and disorders.

Whiteside and Lynam (2001) created the UPPS model of impulsive behavior in order to synthesize existing impulsivity-related scales and definitions into one comprehensive, multidimensional scale of impulsive personality. The use of this scale has improved psychometric measurement of impulsivity while at the same time improving the prediction of different forms of risk-taking behaviors. This entry will describe the development of the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale, discuss the research and clinical applications of this approach, and present emerging data on two risk-taking behaviors, nicotine use and sexual risk-taking, to highlight emerging work and implications in research and clinical practice through the use of this scale.

Development of the UPPS-P Model

The UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale (Lynam et al. 2007) is a 59-item, 4-point Likert-type scale (responses range from 1, agree strongly, to 4, disagree strongly) that synthesized existing impulsivity-related scales into one comprehensive, multidimensional scale of impulsive personality. It is composed of five impulsivity-related traits: (1) negative urgency, the tendency to make rash decisions or engage in regrettable actions as a result of intense negative emotions; (2) lack of perseverance, an individual’s inability to remain with a task until completion and to avoid boredom; (3) lack of premeditation, the tendency to act rashly without careful planning or thinking; (4) sensation seeking, the tendency to seek novelty adventures and excitement; and (5) positive urgency, the tendency to make rash decisions as a result of intense positive emotions.

Whiteside and Lynam (2001) created the UPPS Impulsive Behavior Scale by conducting a factor analysis of ten common self-report impulsivity scales that were previously used to measure impulsivity-related traits, from which four factors were extracted: (1) urgency, (2) (lack of) perseverance, (3) (lack of) premeditation, and (4) sensation seeking. Following the construction of the UPPS model of impulsive personality, Cyders and colleagues (2007) and Cyders and Smith (2007) found urgency to be composed of two distinct constructs, one reflecting rash action in response to negative emotions (i.e., negative urgency) and one reflecting rash action in response to positive emotions (i.e., positive urgency). Thus, positive urgency was integrated into the original UPPS model, creating the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale (Lynam et al. 2007).

Investigations of the factor structure of the UPPS-P indicate that impulsivity is best conceptualized as three factors: sensation seeking, lack of conscientiousness (with lack of premeditation and lack of perseverance as sub-factors of this construct), and urgency (with negative and positive urgency as sub-factors of this construct) (Cyders and Smith 2007). Models looking at an overall factor of impulsivity have not fit the data well, with some authors suggesting that the term “impulsivity” is not only not a useful term but has no meaning and confuses and complicates approaches to empirically examine and intervene upon a constellation of traits that, although they are related, are obviously separate tendencies with different underpinnings and outcomes (e.g., Cyders and Coskunpinar 2011).

The UPPS-P model has been translated from English into various languages including German (Kämpfe and Mitte 2009), French (Billieux et al. 2012), and Spanish (Verdejo-Garcia et al. 2010). It has also been validated in adolescent samples (d’Acremont and Van der Linden 2005) and adapted into a child form (Zapolski et al. 2010b). Additionally, an abbreviated form has been validated (Cyders et al. 2014), and it is considered a reliable alternative to the full version for nonclinical adult samples. Short forms have also been developed in various languages including German (Keye et al. 2009), French (Billieux et al. 2012), and Spanish (Candido et al. 2012). Data also indicate that the UPPS-P is invariant across gender (Cyders 2013): although there are some differences between men and women on the scale (i.e., women tend to score higher on negative urgency and men tend to score higher on sensation seeking), the scales are equally valid predictors of risk-taking across men and women. This work has suggested the broad applicability of the UPPS model across gender and multiple populations, ages, and groups.

Empirical Prediction of Risk-Taking Outcomes

One of the most important implications of the UPPS model has been in the more discrete prediction of risk-taking outcomes. Two recent meta-analyses nicely demonstrate this effect. Specifically, although impulsivity is one of the most important predictors of alcohol use, the sizes of the effects have varied across studies, likely due to the differing definitions and measurements used across research labs. One of the first findings of how the UPPS-P traits improve prediction in the field of alcohol use found that although sensation seeking was highly related to drinking frequency, urgency was the important trait for the experience of problematic levels of alcohol use or abuse (Fischer and Smith 2008). The importance of the use of the UPPS-P for differential prediction of outcomes was supported by a recent, comprehensive meta-analysis of 128 studies in the area of alcohol use: drinking quantity is most strongly related to lack of perseverance (r = 0.32), drinking problems are most strongly related to negative urgency (r = 0.38) and positive urgency (r = 0.34), and alcohol dependence is most related to negative urgency (r = 0.38) and lack of premeditation (r = 0.37) (Coskunpinar et al. 2013). Thus, urgency is considered to be of special clinical relevance and importance, which should be targeted in intervention and prevention approaches across a wide range of clinical problems and diagnoses (see reviews by Cyders et al. 2016; Smith and Cyders 2016).

A similar pattern of differential prediction has emerged across marijuana use research. Recent meta-analytic findings indicate that the experience of negative marijuana use consequences (e.g., legal problems, abuse) is most strongly related to lack of premeditation (r = 0.47), followed by positive urgency (r = 0.37), and sensation seeking (r = 0.39); however, general marijuana use (e.g., ever-use, quantity, frequency) has less robust relationships with impulsivity-related traits (VanderVeen et al. 2016). This suggests that impulsivity-related traits in general appear to be more highly related to problematic levels of marijuana use, and not just the willingness to try or use marijuana.

Taken together, the UPPS-P model improves the prediction of risk-taking outcomes, primarily through distinguishing unique risk for problematic levels of risk-taking, including across risky sexual behaviors, alcohol use, and drug use, among others across the specific, distinct UPPS-P traits.

Clinical Utility of the UPPS-P Model

The UPPS-P model has clinical utility in distinguishing between different levels and types of risk-taking outcomes, which has greatly informed treatment approaches and targets. Previously, sensation seeking was often a target for the prevention of drug and alcohol use among youth (e.g., Palmgreen et al. 2001). These large-scale, primary prevention approaches use mass media strategies (i.e., advertisements, commercials, etc.) targeted at sensation seeking in order to convince youth to live healthier lifestyles. Although the strengths of these approaches include their ready availability to broad dissemination, their effects are quite small, leading some to question their utility. Research using the UPPS-P Model has shed some light on one reason why these approaches might be of limited utility: they are targeting the wrong tendency. Although it’s true that sensation seeking relates to the likelihood to try drugs or even use them more frequently, they don’t appear to be the primary risk factor for more problematic levels of use (i.e., increased quantity as in binge drinking or transitioning into alcohol abuse or dependence).

Recently, some have argued that urgency is the prime impulsivity-related risk factor to target to reduce problematic risk-taking (Cyders et al. 2016). Urgency-like tendencies appear to have a genetic component (Carver et al. 2011; Edenberg et al. 2004; Racine et al. 2013), are present in diagnostic criteria across a wide range of clinical diagnoses in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; APA 2013), and have been implicated across a wide range of maladaptive risk-taking, including substance use, gambling, risky sexual behaviors, binge eating, and even compulsive cellular phone use (see a review by Cyders et al. 2016). Despite this, direct attempts to intervene upon or prevent urgency tendencies have been limited (see a review by Zapolski et al. 2010a).

Approaches to intervene upon UPPS-P traits need to be matched to the specific tendency of risk (Zapolski et al. 2010a). Approaches for sensation seeking can include highly stimulating media messages (as used by Palmgreen and colleagues) and stimulating activities as alternative, safer behavioral options (e.g., engagement in highly stimulating sports or activities). Approaches for deficits in conscientiousness (i.e., lack of premeditation and lack of perseverance) should include cognitive mediation training, behavioral paradigms to reinforce task completion, training in task planning and completion, and appreciation for consequences of one’s actions across settings. Approaches for negative urgency should include emotion regulation, teaching of adaptive alternative behaviors, distress tolerance, medications (e.g., SSRIs), and the use of behavioral chain analyses to understand precipitating events and triggers. Approaches for positive urgency are much less well understood, likely because positive mood is often assumed to be related to good and not bad outcomes (although this is an incorrect assumption), and reductions of positive mood are not likely to be a viable treatment approach. Some possible options to approach positive urgency include teaching more adaptive techniques for savoring positive emotions, identifying alternative and safer means of celebrating, and using cues indicating risks for maladaptive behaviors (Zapolski et al. 2010a), although there is little empirical support for such techniques in modifying positive urgency tendencies.

Future Directions in Research and Clinical Approaches with the UPPS-P

Two clinical areas in which the use of the UPPS-P has improved knowledge and can be used to further aid research and clinical progress are in smoking and risky sexual behaviors. Overall, these two areas will be used to demonstrate the following: (1) the use of specific UPPS-P traits increases the prediction of unique risk-taking behaviors (particularly distinguishing more problematic use from more normative experimentation); (2) the definition of separate risk-taking behaviors (e.g., quantity vs. frequency) increases our understanding of how impulsivity-related traits are differentially related to such behaviors; and (3) the UPPS-P can suggest prime targets for intervention and prevention that have been, to date, underutilized.

Smoking Behaviors. Generally, smoking-related behaviors have shown to be most related to urgency traits and sensation seeking, with urgency associated with problematic levels of use (Spillane et al. 2010) and sensation seeking associated with smoking initiation and frequency (Doran et al. 2013) (see Table 1). Sensation seeking appears to be uniquely related to smoking frequency (Spillane et al. 2010) and smoking initiation (Doran et al. 2013). Given that sensation seeking is the enjoyment of novel and stimulating experiences, it is not surprising that this trait is associated with frequency of use (many report feeling a “buzz” or seeking that feeling when smoking) and initiating cigarette use, seeking a novel experience. Sensation seeking may serve as an excellent target for smoking prevention, and in fact, studies have shown that targeting sensation seeking in anti-substance use campaigns produces positive outcomes (Palmgreen et al. 2001). Sensation seeking may also be a target in smoking cessation treatment, particularly in harm reduction, intervening on this trait to reduce frequency of cigarette use. Further research should examine the effectiveness of harnessing sensation seeking in both preventative and smoking cessation efforts.
Table 1

Studies examining the relationship between smoking behaviors and the UPPS-P traits

Authors

Year

Sample size

Population

Outcome measure

Negative urgency

Positive urgency

Sensation seeking

Lack of planning

Lack of perseverance

Spillane, Smith, and Kahler

2010

359

College students

Smoking frequency

0

0

+

0

0

Nicotine dependence

+

0

0

0

0

Spillane, Combs, Kahler, and Smith

2013

131

College students

FTND

0

+

   

Lee, Peters, Adams, Milich, and Lynam

2015

512

College students

Daily smoker (versus nonsmoker)

+

0

0

0

0

Daily smoker (versus non-daily smoker)

+

0

0

0

0

Note: + indicates a positive relationship, − indicates a negative relationship, and 0 indicates no relationship. A blank space indicates that the relationship was not examined in the study. FTND Fagerstrom Test for Nicotine Dependence

Subsequent findings indicate that negative urgency, however, is uniquely related to daily smoking (Lee et al. 2015), and both positive and negative urgency are related to nicotine dependence (Spillane et al. 2010, 2013; Doran et al. 2013). Data also indicate no significant relationship between cigarette use quantity or frequency (Spillane et al. 2010) and negative or positive urgency. Though there is limited research, data suggests that impulsivity-related traits most closely tied to emotion-based rash action are more tied to problematic levels of smoking and less related to measures of quantity and frequency of use. These findings are similar to the patterns presented above for alcohol and marijuana use (Coskunpinar et al. 2013; VanderVeen et al. 2016). It is possible that negative and positive urgency may be risk factors for the development or continuation of problematic levels of smoking, mainly smoking which could have the largest negative impact on health. It is also possible that such traits could impede smoking cessation treatment, with those higher in these traits showing less treatment response.

In conclusion, although patterns of risk prediction in smoking are similar to those of alcohol and marijuana use, this literature is very underdeveloped. To date, it suggests that the use of specific UPPS-P impulsivity-related traits increases the prediction of specific patterns of smoking behaviors, thus improving prediction, consistency across studies, and the identification of prime treatment targets. However, much of this work remains to be done, and findings above need to be replicated to increase confidence in these patterns as applied to smoking. Some key empirical questions now become as follows: (1) Would the focus on urgency-based interventions be more effective for smoking cessation treatment outcomes? (2) How best can urgency be integrated into smoking prevention approaches? Collectively, this emerging work suggests a viability of the burgeoning need for research examining the relationship between separable smoking behaviors and impulsivity-related traits and the development of this program of research to identify prime points of intervention.

Risky Sexual Behaviors. The literature on the relationship between risky sexual behaviors and impulsivity-related traits examines how these specific traits relate to variables such as an increased number of sexual partners, unprotected sexual activity, and miscellaneous risky sexual behaviors (e.g., sex with a stranger, sex in public, sex while intoxicated, and sex in exchange for money or drugs) (Table 2). These patterns have been examined extensively in both adolescents (Dir et al. 2014) and college students (Derefinko et al. 2014; Deckman and DeWall 2011; Zapolski et al. 2009; Birthrong and Latzman 2014; Dir and Cyders 2015). Findings indicate a positive correlation between negative urgency and both unprotected sexual activity and the number of sexual partners in adolescent (Dir et al. 2014) and young adult samples (Derefinko et al. 2014). Additionally, positive correlations exist between sensation seeking and the number of sexual partners in both adolescent (Dir et al. 2014) and young adult samples (Derefinko et al. 2014); a positive correlation also exists between sensation seeking and sex with a stranger in young adults (Derefinko et al. 2014). Lack of planning demonstrated a positive relationship with several variables used to measure risky sexual behaviors including number of partners (Dir and Cyders 2015; Dir et al. 2014), unprotected sexual activity (Birthrong and Latzman 2014; Dir et al. 2014), and miscellaneous risky sexual behaviors (Deckman and DeWall 2011; Birthrong and Latzman 2014; Zapolski et al. 2009; Dir et al. 2014) in both adolescent (Dir et al. 2014) and young adult samples (Dir and Cyders 2015; Birthrong and Latzman 2014; Deckman and DeWall 2011; Zapolski et al. 2009).
Table 2

Studies examining the relationship between risky sexual behaviors and the UPPS-P traits

Authors

Year

Sample size

Population

Outcome measure

Negative urgency

Positive urgency

Sensation seeking

Lack of planning

Lack of perseverance

Dir and Cyders

2015

611

College students

# of partners

+

 

0

+

 

Deckman and DeWall

2011

172

College students

Risky sexual behaviora

+

+b

+

+b

0

Birthrong and Latzman

2014

917

College students

Risky sex acts (unprotected sex)

+

0

0

+

+

 

Uncommitted partner sex

+

+

0

+

+

Derefinko et al.

2014

135

 

# of partners

0

0

+

  

College students

Sex with a stranger

0

0

+

  
 

Irregular condom use

+

0

0

  

Zapolski, Cyders, and Smith

2009

407

College students

Risky sexual behaviorsc

+

+

0

+

0

Dir, Coskunpinar, and Cyders

2014

14869

 

Frequency of sexual activity

0

 

+

+

+

14779

Adolescents

Unprotected sex

+

 

+

+

+

13667

 

# of partners

0

 

+

+

0

25897

 

Hazardous sexd

+

 

+

+

+

Note: + indicates a positive relationship, − indicates a negative relationship, and 0 indicates no relationship. A blank space indicates that the relationship was not examined in the study

aRisky sexual behavior defined as engagement in one night stand, had sex with an IV drug user, had anal sex, had sex with a partner who had many lifetime partners, had sex with a stranger or prostitute, had sex with someone who had AIDS, or had sex in exchange for drugs or money

bOnly when not controlling for drug and alcohol use

cRisky sexual behaviors defined as sex without a condom; anal sex; sex without birth control, with more than one sexual partner at the same time; sex in public/outside; and sex with involved person and a number of sexual partners

dHazardous sex defined as sexual encounters with added risky situational factors (i.e., sex with a stranger, sex while intoxicated, sex with multiple partners simultaneously)

Lack of perseverance has been shown to be positively related to unprotected sex (Birthrong and Latzman 2014; Dir et al. 2014), hazardous sexual behaviors (Dir et al. 2014), and frequency of sexual activity (Dir et al. 2014). However, research examining positive urgency has resulted in discrepant findings within college student samples. While some studies indicate positive correlations between risky sexual behaviors and positive urgency (Deckman and DeWall 2011; Zapolski et al. 2009), others demonstrated no relationship at all (Derefinko et al. 2014; Birthrong and Latzman 2014). Furthermore, in the study conducted by Deckman and DeWall (2011), the correlation was only in effect when the analysis did not control for drug and alcohol use, indicating substance use as a mediator between positive urgency and risky sexual behaviors. In addition, a relationship between unprotected sexual activity and positive urgency was not observed (Birthrong and Latzman 2014; Derefinko et al. 2014), which is surprising considering one may expect an individual experiencing strong positive emotions to behave hedonistically and forego contraception in the heat of the moment.

Additionally, important meta-analytic findings suggest that men and women may benefit from unique gender and impulsivity-trait-specific intervention and prevention strategies (Dir et al. 2014). The majority of current preventions have focused on the role of sensation seeking (as discussed above in the case of alcohol and marijuana use prevention); however, negative urgency and lack of premeditation deserve equal attention, especially among women, as high scores on these scales may indicate a propensity for engagement in risky sexual behaviors. Furthermore, interventions that incorporate attitudes, motivations, skill building, and parental involvement have demonstrated effectiveness in decreasing risky sexual behaviors among adolescent boys (e.g., Kincaid et al. 2012).

One limitation to the current literature on risky sexual behaviors and impulsivity-related traits is the heterogeneity in how risky sexual behaviors are measured and defined (Dir et al. 2014). Many studies used nonspecific measures to generate a “total risky sexual behavior score,” and the compilation of these behaviors, rather than the separation, could impact scores. Therefore, within those studies, it is difficult to determine which risky sexual behaviors may be correlated with particular UPPS-P traits. Further research should seek to specify specific sexual behaviors and their relationships with UPPS-P traits, so that clinical intervention can be developed appropriately. In addition, the vast majority of current research on risky sexual behaviors and impulsivity-related traits focuses on adolescent and young adult populations; further research should seek to determine if similar correlations hold true for adult populations.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the UPPS-P model provides a comprehensive, synthesized approach to measure, research, and intervene upon impulsivity’s effects on a wide range of clinical diagnoses, problems, and risky behaviors. The use of specific UPPS-P traits increases the prediction of unique risk-taking behaviors (particularly distinguishing more problematic use from more normative experimentation). Similarly, the definition of separate risk-taking behaviors (e.g., quantity vs. frequency) increases our understanding of how impulsivity-related traits are differentially related to such behaviors, which informs the best point of intervention. The use of multiple different definitions of impulsivity, while calling them all “impulsivity,” has led to much confusion in the research literature. The UPPS-P Model strongly suggests that the use of more discrete, separable traits increases prediction, leads to more consistency across studies, and increases our understanding of mechanisms underlying risk-taking. The development of the UPPS-P model has standardized the way in which researchers around the world study impulsivity-related traits, generalizing across multiple groups, populations, and gender. There are excellent future directions for examining the predictive validity of the UPPS-P model for various smoking and sexual risk-taking outcomes, although emerging research supports well-established patterns of how these traits relate to other risk-taking behaviors.

Work with the UPPS-P suggests prime targets for intervention and prevention that have been, to date, underutilized, which might in part explain limitations in our treatment approaches. Because impulsivity is the most common criterion across the DSM (Zapolski et al. 2010a), better understanding of which impulsivity-related traits are important and should be targeted in prevention and intervention approaches will greatly improve our ability to intervene upon and prevent a wide range of clinical problems. This is important: Attempts to design treatments for one problem or disorder often result in lack of generalizability and a need to “reinvent” the wheel. The development of more general approaches to modify impulsivity-related tendencies would be of much broader and larger clinical relevance.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jasmyn Sanders
    • 1
  • Alexandra R. Hershberger
    • 2
  • Melissa A. Cyders
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Miami Coral GablesIndianapolisUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyIndiana University Purdue UniversityIndianapolisUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anna Czarna
    • 1
  1. 1.Jagiellonian UniversityKrakowPoland