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August 10, 2017

Research Review: Impulsivity and Compulsivity in Women with Anorexia

Research Review: Impulsivity and Compulsivity in Women with Anorexia

Personality traits are often studied in reference to eating disorders in an attempt to better understand the illness and its causes. Two traits that have received a great deal of attention in people with anorexia are impulsivity and compulsivity.

A recent study examined how impulsivity and compulsivity are independently associated with eating disorder symptoms in anorexia nervosa via a cross-sectional study. Although impulsivity and compulsivity have been traditionally conceptualized as two opposite poles along a single personality dimension, this research examines impulsivity and compulsivity as two separate continuums.

  • Impulsivity consisted of four dimensions in the study:
  • Negative urgency
  • Lack of premeditation
  • Lack of perseverance
  • Sensation Seeking

Eating disorder cognitions were examined with the Eating Disorder Examination (EDE) and consisted of four subscales:

  • Restraint
  • Eating concern
  • Weight concern
  • Shape concern


  • Restraint was associated with compulsivity and lack of perseverance.
  • Eating concern was associated with compulsivity, lack of perseverance, and negative urgency.
  • Compulsivity was a significant predictor for weight concern.
  • Lack of perseverance was associated with shape concern.
  • Negative urgency was found to be uniquely associated with LOC eating frequency.
  • Sensation seeking and lack of premeditation were not found to be associated with any of the ED variables.

Considering the unique associations found, the results supported the conceptualization of impulsivity and compulsivity as independent contributors when studying personalities in people who struggle with eating disorders. Treating eating disorder symptoms as only compulsive or impulsive may not fully address or reduce the symptoms, as some were found to have both compulsive and impulsive features.

The study also supports idea of breaking impulsivity down into multiple facets instead of viewing it as one global trait because some facets of the trait (e.g. sensation seeking and lack of premeditation) were not found to be associated with eating disorder symptoms in this sample. Recognizing which impulsivity facets are related to eating disorders could be helpful for designing treatments.

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