Sex differences in impulsivity: a meta-analysis

Catharine Penelope Cross, Lee T. Copping, Anne Campbell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

461 Citations (Scopus)
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Men are overrepresented in socially problematic behaviors, such as aggression and criminal behavior, which have been linked to impulsivity. Our review of impulsivity is organized around the tripartite theoretical distinction between reward hypersensitivity, punishment hyposensitivity, and inadequate effortful control. Drawing on evolution try, criminological, developmental, and personality theories, we predicted that sex differences would be most pronounced in risky activities with men demonstrating greater sensation seeking, greater reward sensitivity, and lower punishment sensitivity. We predicted a small female advantage in effortful control. We analyzed 741 effect sizes from 277 studies, including psychometric and behavioral measures. Women were consistently more punishment sensitive (d = -0.33), but men did not show greater reward sensitivity (d = 0.01). Men showed significantly higher sensation seeking on questionnaire mea lures (d = 0.41) and on a behavioral risk-taking task (d = 0.36). Questionnaire measures of deficits in effortful control showed a very modest effect size in the male direction (d = 0.08). Sex differences were not found on delay discounting or executive function tasks. The results indicate a stronger sex difference in motivational rather than effortful or executive forms of behavior control. Specifically, they support evolutionary and biological theories of risk taking predicated on sex differences in punishment sensitivity. A clearer understanding of sex differences in impulsivity depends upon recognizing important distinctions between sensation seeking and impulsivity, between executive and effortful forms of control, and between impulsivity as a deficit and as a trait.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-130
Number of pages34
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011


  • Impulsivity
  • Sex
  • Sensation seeking
  • Effortful control
  • Reinforcement sensitivity
  • Risk-task bart
  • Gender-differences
  • Self-control
  • Personality-traits
  • Decision-making
  • General-theory
  • Behavioral activation
  • Construct-validity


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