We tend to think of someone’s willingness to take risks, even poorly thought out ones, as an inherent trait — that they’re just the sort of person born to love splurging on a $300 wax replica of Donald Duck (the sassiest of ducks).

But while our genes and early home life do have a disproportionate influence on the shape of our overall personalities, there are plenty of more subtle and subconscious triggers we’re faced with every day that can turn us into sloppy daredevils at the drop of a hat. Let’s take a look at some of them.

A Bad Night’s Sleep

It doesn’t take a Rip Van Winkle to figure out that bad sleeping habits can wreck havoc with our lives. As Medical Daily has previously detailed, regularly lacking or having trouble with sleep can be a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and, as it turns out, poor self-control.

A July 2015 review of the available scientific literature found that sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to have “difficulty with daily self-control issues such as resisting impulses and maintaining attentive behavior.” Though there’s several possible reasons for why poor sleep interferes with our level headedness, the researchers theorize the connection can broadly be explained on two different levels: the physiological and psychological.

For one, a good night’s sleep replenishes our ability to effectively process and use glucose, a bodily function already known to predict better self-control and focus. Secondly, our ultimately futile attempts to combat the increasing urge to sleep can deplete the limited cognitive resources we have available to us, making it much easier to veer off course and send late night texts to our horrible exes.

There’s also research suggesting that adding more sleep to your schedule, even via a quick nap, can cut down on impulsive behaviors.

Decision Fatigue

Similar to fighting off sleep, it’s thought that having to repeatedly make choices or being tasked with especially hard decisions can deplete the internal resources we rely on to get through the day — a cognitive process often referred to as self-regulation.

A 2008 study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology recruited volunteers to take part in a series of experiments that tested their self-regulation skills following decision-making tasks; for example, asking real life customers to solve math problems while in the midst of a shopping trip. In that test, people who made more shopping purchases (and thus more decisions) earlier in the day, were more likely to both take longer to solve a problem and to quit sooner than those who hadn’t.

“The present findings suggest that self-regulation, active initiative, and effortful choosing draw on the same psychological resource,” the authors concluded. “Making decisions depletes that resource, thereby weakening the subsequent capacity for self-control and active initiative.” Interestingly enough, that might mean people with decision fatigue are more likely to make both more impulsive and lazier decisions than otherwise.

As an important aside, self-regulation is similar but not identical to the concept of cognitive load, which theorizes that people only have a certain amount of energy and attention with which to perform a task at any one given moment. Just like with self-regulation, though, being overwhelmed with too much information at once can weaken our ability to avoid temptation. An example of this can be seen when shopping at a store flooded with items, such as your local Ikea. It might also partly explain why poorer people with fewer resources but more costly decisions to make are typically thought to be more impulsive.


Speaking of shopping…a February 2015 study of over 500 women, all between the ages of 18 to 40 and not pregnant nor on the pill, found that ovulation might indirectly nudge them towards being particularly geared for a shopping spree.

"Just like a fisherman casting a wide net, ovulating women seek to cast a wide net into the dating pool and expand the number of potential suitors they have to choose from," lead author Kristina M. Durant, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, explained at the time. "And, this desire for variety in men at ovulation triggers a variety-seeking mindset that carries over into desire for variety in products."

In addition to the main finding, they discovered they could dampen the fertility effect under certain circumstances.

"From candy bars to cosmetics, ovulating women chose many different options--not just the same product or brand again and again," said Durante. "However, when we had women imagine themselves in a loving relationship with a desirable partner, or when we had married women put on their wedding rings, they no longer desired variety near ovulation." Intriguely enough, though, the effect was actually largest in women already in committed relationships.

As previously pointed by Medical Daily’s own Lizette Borreli, a 2010 study also concluded that ovulation may make women more likely to unconsciously purchase sexier clothes. Not for their partner or potential mate’s direct sake, mind you, but to outshine other potential rivals.


Anyone’s who experienced the dreadful sensation of "hangry" knows that an empty stomach can overwhelm the better angels of our nature.

The dynamic here is in some ways similar to sleep, since glucose levels go down when we’ve starved for food, thus leading to worse impulse control. But the very feeling of hunger partially shares an origin with that of anger, thanks to a neurotransmitter called neuropeptide Y and its corresponding Y receptor.

Y helps promote appetite and decreased physical activity when glucose levels are down. Meanwhile, some animal research has shown that the release of Y also encourages more territorial aggression, which scientists theorize may have served to help our ancestors to be more protective of their available food supply. And at least one human study has shown that increased levels of the chemical in our spinal fluid are found in people with pronounced anger disorders.

Though it might go without saying, anger tends to leave us impatient and willing to take on more risks.

Of course, the body is usually more complex than we give credit it for. It seems that people genetically predisposed to have low levels of Y report greater amounts of stress when faced with negative experiences and worse pain perception than those who don’t. That handicap then makes them more susceptible to depression, which in turn is associated with worse self-control (this relationship likely goes both ways though).

None of this is to say that any one gene or trigger is wholly to blame for our overall impulsivity, obviously. But to stay on the safe side, I’d recommend getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, and trying to take it easy whenever possible.