What Does “Behavioral Undercontrol” Mean?

It probably makes sense that based on patterns of behavior it’s possible to predict future behaviors or pathology.  The term behavioral undercontrol refers to a wide range of behavior that is expressed during childhood (and beyond) which reflects inhibited behavioral impulses.  Behavior undercontrol is linked to future psychiatric pathology including substance use disorder. (link is external)  Despite its utility, however, many people know little about behavioral undercontrol.

Behavioral undercontrol is a component of many childhood psychiatric disorders including oppositional defiant disorder, (link is external) conduct disorder (link is external) and ADHD.  Kids with these conditions are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol and exhibit substance abuse (substance use disorder) during adolescence.  In fact, some experts hypothesize that behavioral undercontrol and substance abuse have similar genetic causes.

More generally, indicators of behavioral undercontrol including the variety of drugs used and number of sexual encounters as well as trouble with the police are predictive of adult psychopathologies other than substance abuse.

Personality characteristics indicative of behavioral undercontrol, such as risk-taking, diminished conformity to social conventions, increased tolerance of deviance, low constraint and negative emotionality, have been linked to alcohol, nicotine and other drug disorders.  Of note, negative emotionality refers to a tendency for a person to express negative moods or psychological distress.

To date, most of the research done on behavioral undercontrol has focused on alcohol.  However, behavioral undercontrol plays an important role in not only alcohol abuse but also abuse of other drugs, too.  By better understanding behavioral undercontrol, the hope is that we will be able to plan preventive interventions to curb risk.

On a final note, not everybody who demonstrates behavioral undercontrol goes on to develop substance use disorder or psychiatric illness.  In other words, some people are naturally impulsive and take risks. but do not develop a substance use disorder.

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