Monday, April 16, 2012

Impulsivity and Business Success


Answer - it depends. In the paper Taking More Now: The Optimality of Impulsive Choice Hinges on Environment Structure, researchers at the University of Texas found that the reward environment involving choices determined whether highly impulsive test subjects performed better or worse than their low-impulsive testing counterparts.

The test involve college students who were administered a personality test that estimated trait-impulsivity. The experiment involved planning a business investment game which varied the conditions to optimize rewards either in the short term (e.g. cut costs, immediate boost in profits) or long term (e.g. invest in new equipment and training, delayed profits). One interesting observation of the test is that the higher trait-impulsive students were more likely to be attentive to changes in the game variables that affected immediate short term profits - so they out-performed less impulsive students when the experimental situation favored short term rewards.

"Crucially, whether each tendency was advantageous or disadvantageous depended not on any endogenous factors, but solely on the environment."

The researchers conclude: 

"While impulsivity is often discussed as a maladaptive trait associated with myopic decision making and a myriad of pathological behaviors (Patton et al., 1995; Perry & Carroll, 2008; Petry, 2001), the present set of results lends credence to the notion that impulsivity is not a purely maladaptive trait but one whose consequences hinge on the structure of the decision-making environment. We found that low- and high impulsive participants exhibited consistent trial-to-trial choice
behavior across the two experiments: impulsive participants were more likely to choose the option with larger immediate rewards—based on their direct experience from sampling the two options—whereas less impulsive participants were more likely to pass up larger immediate gains and opt for the option associated with increasing rewards over time."

We had several thoughts - first, that when working with trait-impulsive students in the classroom or at home, it probably is worthwhile to optimize reward systems that are more immediate than delayed. If doing a task is not intrinsically rewarding, then sweetening the process with more immediate external rewards would likely help. 

We also couldn't help wondering if this preference for more immediate rewards is why so many highly successful entrepreneurs with ADHD / impulsive traits seem to flourish in the world of technology and start-up companies. The next thought that those of us who find ourselves counseling and giving advice to young people regarding the choosing of their careers, should mention entrepreneurial possibilities that may be especially well-suited to their temperaments and personalities.

Finally, we found it very encouraging that the authors of this student reflected on the flip side of 'deviation from the norm'. They commented on the fact that the trait of impulsivity was often studied by academics in the context of significant pathology (like violent parolees or heroin abusers), rather than 'normal' non-clinical populations. 

Perhaps this century will see more of a shift toward appreciation of neurodiversity by psychologists and psychiatrists. We would like to see the extremes views of every difference = disease become a thing of the past.

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