Executive function, impulsivity, and risky behaviors in young adults

Bradley W. Reynolds, Michael R. Basso, Ashley K. Miller, Douglas M. Whiteside, Dennis Combs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Objective: Among patients with brain damage, executive function deficits and impulsivity correspond with propensity to engage in risky behaviors. Less research has addressed this issue in healthy adults, and fewer still have simultaneously evaluated the importance of executive function and impulsive personality. Additionally, most research has focused exclusively on substance use while ignoring other domains of risky behavior such as sexual activity and antisocial practices. Toward this end, we examined the association of risky behaviors with executive function and self-reported impulsivity. Method: Healthy undergraduates (n = 56) were administered the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), and UPPS-P impulsivity questionnaire. A self-report questionnaire assessed risky sexual activities, drug use, and antisocial behaviors over a 2-month interval. Results: After accounting for social desirability and performance effort, multiple regression analyses revealed a robust relationship between executive function and risk-taking. Specifically, WCST performance correlated with risky sexual and substance use behavior, whereas the IGT was uniquely linked with antisocial acts. Trait impulsivity was positively associated with sexual behavior. Conclusions: Extending previous research, executive function accounted for more variance in risky behaviors than self-reported impulsivity, but this was mediated by facet of executive function. Decision-making under risk seemed to better account for antisocial acts, whereas perseveration was more strongly linked to sexual activity and substance misuse. These data imply that poor executive function increases the likelihood that healthy young adults will engage in risky and potentially dangerous acts, extending the ecological validity of the WCST and IGT.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)212-221
Number of pages10
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
selection strategy contribute to poor performance among substance users (Bishara et al., 2010). Notably, sexual risk-taking has been linked to reduced performance across multiple indices of executive function (Joyal, Beaulieu-Plante, & de Chanterac, 2014). However, results have been mixed regarding the WCST (Adjorlolo & Egbenya, 2016; Cohen, Nesci, Steinfeld, Haeri, & Galynker, 2010; Joyal, Black, & Dassylva, 2007; Reid, Garos, Carpenter, & Coleman, 2011). Adjorlolo and Egbenya (2016) have proposed that deficits in cognitive inhibition (i.e., impulsivity), in tandem with cognitive inflexibility, contribute to sexual misconduct. This explanation is supported by our results. The IGT may not recruit relevant mechanisms of cognitive control and flexibility (Toplak, Sorge, Benoit, West, & Stanovich, 2010) and, thus, was not linked to risky sexual acts. Such speculation notwithstanding, the current data indicate that different aspects of risky behavior possess unique relationships with distinct facets of executive function.


  • Decision-making
  • Executive function
  • Impulsivity
  • Risk-taking


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