Hold It! Stop Making Impulsive Decisions

To pee or not to pee? A new study published in Psychological Science says you may want to make important life decisions before finding that restroom. The study, conducted by a team in the Netherlands, evaluated how having a full bladder affected the ability to make decisions that required self-control. First, volunteers in the study drank varying amounts of water. After 40 minutes (roughly the time it takes the bladder to fill), the volunteers were asked to make decisions choosing between short- and long-term benefits. For example, in one decision, participants were asked to choose between receiving $16 tomorrow or $30 in 35 days.

Overall, people with full bladders held out for the larger, delayed reward. Just thinking about words related to urination also led to the same behavior. The authors assert that controlling one impulse allows you to control all impulses more effectively.

These results contradict earlier beliefs that exercising self-control or self-restraint in one area of decision-making reduces the ability to control impulses in other areas. The theory, called “ego depletion,” claims that each person has a limited capacity for self-control. When self-control is exercised, the resources for further impulse control are depleted, leading to less self-control after exertion.

However, one study found that self-control, especially after a depleting task, is influenced only by an individual’s belief regarding how much self-control he or she has. People who believed self-control was a resource that could run out exhibited less self-control. People who did not believe self-control was limited showed restraint in subsequent activities.

Impulse control necessitates making a decision between reward or benefit now and reward later. Impulsivity is related to many psychiatric and personality disorders including mania, substance abuse, and antisocial personality disorder. The impulsive decisions made by these individuals may lead to significant negative consequences — much more so than the decisions made by the volunteers with not-so-full bladders — and is characterized by action without thinking. Impulsive decision-making is thought to be controlled by two separate neural pathways: one that values immediate reward and one that values delayed reward. But, research in this area is still limited; methods to control impulsivity are under investigation, namely for the treatment of substance abuse.

The authors of the current study believe that better decisions come with a full bladder. But, controlling the bladder is a largely autonomic and unconscious process. Though you can control it to some degree, when you really gotta go, you gotta go. Perhaps exercising self-restraint over one process trains your brain to control itself in others. So, next time you have a big decision to make, have a bottle of water first. Decide now, pee later.


DeWall CN, Baumeister RF, Mead NL, & Vohs KD (2011). How leaders self-regulate their task performance: evidence that power promotes diligence, depletion, and disdain. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100 (1), 47-65 PMID: 20919772

Job V, Dweck CS, & Walton GM (2010). Ego depletion–is it all in your head? implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (11), 1686-93 PMID: 20876879

Kable JW, & Glimcher PW (2010). An “as soon as possible” effect in human intertemporal decision making: behavioral evidence and neural mechanisms. Journal of neurophysiology, 103 (5), 2513-31 PMID: 20181737

Martin LE, & Potts GF (2009). Impulsivity in Decision-Making: An Event-Related Potential Investigation. Personality and individual differences, 46 (3), 303-308 PMID: 20126284

Tuk MA, Trampe D, & Warlop L (2011). Inhibitory spillover: increased urination urgency facilitates impulse control in unrelated domains. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 22 (5), 627-33 PMID: 21467548

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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