Blue Line

Breaking down impulsivity: A critical factor in police candidate evaluation

February 14, 2024  By Matthew H. Logan

Photo credit: Ajax9 / Getty

In police recruiting, we are often so absorbed in ensuring that the potential candidate has not committed a criminal act that we sometimes ignore personality features that not only make a candidate more prone to commit criminal acts but render them dangerous to themself and others. In spending over 40 years in policing as an officer (28 years) and a psychologist (20 years), I have seen behavioural and cognitive signposts that read “danger” and, specifically in police recruiting, it is crucial that we slow down and pay attention.

Impulsivity is one of these behavioural markers that we must observe in a police candidate. It is highly correlated with behaviour and cognition that could potentially be high-risk, and the following factors are certainly not what we want to see in a police officer:

  1. Risk-taking
  2. Sensation seeking
  3. Lack of forethought
  4. Lack of consequential thinking

According to the DSM-5, which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals, impulsivity is defined in terms of an aspect of disinhibition. It is considered an immediate reaction to stimuli, an unplanned reaction on the spur of the moment or with no regard for its consequences, a problem in programming or adhering to programs, a sense of urgency and/or self-harming behaviour in the time of emotional turmoil (APA, 2013).

Moeller et al (2001) believed that impulsivity should also include a readiness to take immediate and unplanned action as a response to internal and external stimuli, with no regard for the negative consequences for themselves or others. Eysenck (1993) holds that impulsivity is characterized by unplanned risky behaviors, and making up one’s mind quickly. From a behavioural perspective, impulsivity includes a wide variety of actions that are immature, dangerous, inappropriate to the situation and done without consideration, which usually bring about negative consequences.


In psychopathology, impulsivity is defined in three different ways:

  1. Fast reaction without thinking and conscious judgment
  2. Acting without enough thinking
  3. Tendency to act with less thinking compared to others who have similar levels of knowledge and ability (Arce & Santisteban, 2006).

In general, impulsivity is the symptom of some disorders, such as hyperactivity disorders, hypersexuality, depression and anxiety disorders, and personality disorders, especially cluster B disorders (antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder).

Several studies have shown a correlation between committing suicide and impulsivity in patients with borderline personality disorder. Soloff et al (1994) reported a higher level of impulsive aggression in borderline personality disorder. They also hold that it can predict suicide patterns. Individuals with personality disorders with a history of attempted suicide showed a higher level of impulsive actions, compared to individuals with no history of attempted suicide. Rarely can we see a manic episode without impulsive actions. The risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviour associated with impulsivity can result in substance use and abuse, increased need for stimulation, proneness to boredom, promiscuous sexual activity and reckless behaviour that puts others at risk.

In police recruiting and selection, impulsivity is an element in many well-established personality tests. However, it may be worth expanding the recruit screening process to test specifically for response initiation,  unplanned response inhibition, failure to inhibit unplanned action once it has been initiated; and finally, failure to tolerate delay gratification (Mathias, Marsh-Richard, & Dougherty, 2008).

Lack of forethought and lack of consequential thinking cannot be the cognitive deficit of an individual tasked with life and death decision-making. Although fast thinking and action are required, they are just part of the arsenal that allows for sound judgment and mature decision-making.


  1. American Psychiatric Association APA (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed.
  2. Arce E, Santisteban C (2006). “Impulsivity: a review.” Psicothema, 18(2):213–20.
  3. Eysenck S. (1993). Development of a measure of impulsivity and its relationship to the super factors of personality. 17th ed. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
  4. Mathias CW , Marsh-Richard DM, Dougherty DM (2008). Behavioral Measures of Impulsivity and the Law. Behav Sci Law. 26(6): 691–707.
  5. Moeller FG, Barratt ES, Dougherty DM, Schmitz JM, Swann AC (2001). “Psychiatric aspects of impulsivity.” Am J Psychiatry, 158(11):1783–93.
  6. Soloff PH, Lis JA, Kelly T, Cornelius J, Ulrich R (1994). “Risk factors for suicidal behavior in borderline personality disorder.” Am J Psychiatry, 151(9):1316–23.

Dr. Matt Logan began a law enforcement career in 1980 and served as a member of the RCMP in B.C. for 28 years. He has signed back on with the RCMP and is currently the Criminal Investigative Psychologist in the National Headquarters.

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