UC Berkeley study assesses emotional-based impulsivity

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A group of researchers, including UC Berkeley professor Sheri Johnson and campus visiting scholar J.D. Allen, worked on a study about negative urgency. According to Allen, the team tried to figure out the consistency of people’s performance on tasks over time to assess urgency, or emotion-related impulsivity.

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UC Berkeley researchers collaborated on a study on negative urgency, or the tendency to act impulsively in response to strong, negative feelings.

The group of researchers, which includes campus professor Sheri Johnson and campus visiting scholar J.D. Allen, as well as collaborators at Brown University, Harvard University and Oberlin College, found that controlling negative emotional reactions is linked with psychiatric risk, according to Allen.

Allen said the results also suggested that when people are high on negative urgency, the tendency to act impulsive in response to strong, negative feelings, they are more likely to behave in ways that they will regret later.

“This is important because heightened urgency increases risk for a whole range of psychiatric and behavioral problems,” Allen said. “Before the study, there hadn’t really been a task that had been empirically validated through research to measure this construct objectively.”

Allen and his colleagues sought to determine how consistent people’s performance on tasks was over time to assess urgency, or emotion-related impulsivity, he said. The study also evaluates the correlation between one’s performance and their self-assessment of urgency in order to better understand emotion-related impulsively.

To collect data for the study, the researchers developed the “emotional stop-signal task,” a test that measures emotional response inhibition, or the ability to control impulses motivated by emotional reactions, according to Allen.

According to a Berkeley News article, task participants are shown a series of images and asked to classify them as either “positive” or “negative.” Some images were followed with a “stop” signal so that participants knew to inhibit their reactions.

While the emotional stop-signal task was initially conducted on students and community members, the study has expanded their study group to include participants at psychiatric hospitals, Allen said.

Allen said he decided to study emotional-related impulsivity because it increases the probability that people will develop mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder and substance use disorders.

“Expanding our knowledge of how urgency relates to brain functioning, cognitive functioning, is crucial to develop treatments for all these disorders that don’t simply focus on reducing the symptoms of a specific disorder, but instead target the underlying dysfunction that might make someone vulnerable to mental health problems in the first place,” Allen said.

Rising demand for mental health care and decreased stigma around psychotherapy has been encouraging more studies relating psychiatric illness and methods of mental health care, according to Allen. He added that with further study, researchers can better understand the brain mechanisms and underpinnings of these risk factors to focus on psychiatric disorders.

Allen said he hopes further behavioral study will allow for the incorporation of routine behavioral assessments in therapeutic settings and looks forward to having these results used in an educational setting to detect risk earlier and more efficiently.

“I envision the future of mental health care being much more individualized so we can develop these personalized approaches to therapy that are tailored to meet specific deficits that people show on these assessments,” Allen said.

Contact Lauren Cho at [email protected].