Urgency is an impulsivity facet that reflects the tendency to act rashly while faced with intense emotional contexts.
Impulsivity, a trait that is included in all major models of personality, has for decades been known to play a crucial role in psychopathological and neuropsychiatric disorders and can thus be considered a trans-diagnostic construct. It is now established that impulsivity reflects a combination of multiple and separable personality traits or psychological constructs. In a seminal study conducted to delimit the facets underlying the “umbrella” construct of impulsivity, Whiteside and Lynam (2001) administered several widely used questionnaires of impulsivity and the Revised NEO Personality Inventory to a large sample of undergraduate students. A factor analysis conducted on these questionnaires resulted in a four-factor solution, which was the basis for the creation of a scale called the UPPS (urgency-premeditation-perseverance-sensation seeking) Impulsive Behavior Scale (UPPS). The four dimensions of impulsivity measured by the UPPS were named (1) urgency, defined as the tendency to act rashly while faced with intense negative emotional contexts; (2) premeditation, defined as the tendency to take into account the consequences of an act before engaging in that act; (3) perseverance, defined as the ability to remain focused on a task that may be boring and/or difficult; and (4) sensation seeking, considered as a tendency to enjoy and pursue activities that are exciting and open to trying new experiences. The UPPS has since been established as being characterized by strong psychometric properties (e.g., consistent factorial structure supported by exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses, high internal consistency, and test-retest validity of the subscales), and the distinction between the four subscales of the UPPS has also been confirmed by means of semistructured interviews (Smith et al. 2007). The UPPS has been translated and validated in many languages and a short 20-item form of the scale has been developed (Billieux et al. 2012). Among the various dimensions of the UPPS model, urgency has received increasing attention in the last decade. A recent meta-analysis demonstrated that urgency is, among the UPPS dimensions, the strongest predictor of psychopathology (Berg et al. 2015), and a growing number of studies are being performed to elucidate the (neuro)psychological mechanisms underlying urgency-related behaviors.
Urgency, conceptualized as an impulsivity trait reflecting the proneness to act rashly when faced with adverse emotional states, has been associated with a wide range of problematic behaviors and psychiatric disorders, including (but not limited to) alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, borderline and antisocial personality, aggressive behaviors, compulsive buying, disordered gambling, and excessive involvement in online activities such as video gaming or cybersex (Billieux et al. 2010; Cyders and Smith 2008). Urgency remains the best predictor of psychopathology when controlling for the effect of the other UPPS facets (Berg et al. 2015). Urgency was also found to moderately correlate with depression and anxiety symptoms, leading some scholars to postulate that the construct of urgency is a strong indicator of an individual’s proneness to engage in a variety of maladaptive behaviors to regulate or relieve negative emotional experience (Cyders and Smith 2008).
Urgency-related behaviors have been shown to take place in the context not only of negative intensive emotional states but also of intensive positive emotional states which led to the distinction between the constructs of “negative urgency,” that is, rash actions taking place in response to negative emotional contexts, and “positive urgency,” that is, rash actions taking place in response to positive emotional contexts (Cyders et al. 2007). Accordingly, the most recent versions of the UPPS generally included a positive urgency subscale (e.g., Billieux et al. 2012). Positive urgency has, like negative urgency, been related to a variety of problematic behaviors such as disordered gambling, alcohol abuse, and risky sexual practices, and it has been proposed to reflect a proneness for certain types of excessive behaviors that aim to regulate positive emotions by maintaining or even enhancing them (Cyders and Smith 2008). Existing studies have, however, highlighted strong correlations between positive and negative urgency (Billieux et al. 2012; Cyders et al. 2007), which suggests that these two constructs may be related to common underlying (neuro)psychological mechanisms. In fact, recent research showed that the negative and positive urgency pathways to impulsive behaviors demonstrate a similar pattern of correlations across all forms of psychopathology, which raises concerns regarding the relevance of conceptually and practically separating the two constructs (Berg et al. 2015). Thus, urgency probably reflects a general tendency toward acting rashly when faced with intense emotional states, whether they are positive or negative.
Although it is now relatively well established that urgency-related behaviors often aim to regulate emotions, the elucidation of the specific psychological mechanisms underlying this impulsivity trait is an ongoing process. A growing corpus of data has nonetheless recently helped identify specific neurocognitive and psychological processes that predict heightened urgency in both clinical and nonclinical individuals. To date, following initial hypotheses formulated by Bechara and Van der Linden (2005), several studies have found a specific association between urgency (when taking into account the various subscales of the UPPS) and reduced prepotent response inhibition capacity, that is, the ability to deliberately control or suppress an automatic behavioral response. A recent neuroimaging study also emphasized that urgency negatively correlates with the activation of cerebral regions that are known to play a central role in efficient prepotent response inhibition (the stop-signal task), resulting in more efficient inhibitory control (Wilbertz et al. 2014). Billieux et al. (2010) also showed in a laboratory-based emotional decision-making task that heightened urgency is associated with a marked tendency to favor short-term choices (Iowa gambling task). It is worth noting that other candidate factors may plausibly influence urgency-like behaviors, such as individual differences in emotional reactivity (i.e., the extent to which individuals experience emotions in response to a wide array of stimuli strongly and for a prolonged period) or the cognitive strategies deployed to regulate adverse emotions (e.g., suppression versus reappraisal). Cyders and Smith (2008) have postulated that individual differences in the urgency trait might depend on genetic factors, more precisely, gene polymorphisms related to the serotonin transporter gene (5HTTLPR) and several dopamine receptors (D2, D3, D4). The rationale for such a hypothesis was that these specific polymorphisms are thought to reduce prefrontal (top-down) modulation of amygdala-driven emotion reactivity. However, to date, the genetic hypothesis formulated by Cyders and Smith (2008) remains supported only by indirect evidence (Smith and Cyders 2016).
Urgency is one of the subcomponents of the UPPS model of impulsivity (Whiteside and Lynam 2001). Although it is now established that urgency plays a pervasive role in the etiology of a wide range of problematic behaviors and psychiatric disorders, the elucidation of its underlying mechanisms (e.g., genetic and neurocognitive factors) is still an ongoing process.