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Rethinking Impulsivity in Suicide


  • Support for this study was provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z4; E-mail:


Elevated impulsivity is thought to facilitate the transition from suicidal thoughts to suicidal behavior. Therefore, impulsivity should distinguish those who have attempted suicide (attempters) from those who have only considered suicide (ideators-only). This hypothesis was examined in three large nonclinical samples: (1) 2,011 military recruits, (2) 1,296 college students, and (3) 399 high school students. In sample 1, contrary to traditional models of suicide risk, a unidimensional measure of impulsivity failed to distinguish attempters from ideators-only. In samples 2 and 3, which were administered a multidimensional measure of impulsivity (i.e., the UPPS impulsive behavior scale; Whiteside & Lynam, 2001), different impulsivity-related traits characterized attempters and ideators-only. Whereas both attempters and ideators-only exhibited high urgency (the tendency to act impulsive in the face of negative emotions), only attempters exhibited poor premeditation (a diminished ability to think through the consequences of one's actions). Neither attempters nor ideators-only exhibited high sensation seeking or lack of perseverance. Future research should continue to distinguish impulsivity-related traits that predict suicide ideation from those that predict suicide attempts, and models of suicide risk should be revised accordingly.