Compulsive Vs. Impulsive: What's The Difference?

The words compulsive and impulsive are often used interchangeably, but there are a number of key differences, one being that the former may be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

First things first: Let's do a quick recap of the definitions of each word. defines a compulsion as "a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, especially one that is irrational or contrary to one's will." Compulsive is simply the adjective to describe a person who experiences these impulses and urges.


Impulsive is defined as "actuated or swayed by emotional or involuntary impulses" (per, while the noun "impulse" is defined as "sudden, involuntary inclination prompting to action."

Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy offered similar definitions and elaborated on the psychology behind each. The center explained that people with compulsive behaviors have the urge to do something repeatedly until feelings of "anxiety or unease [go] away." By contrast, a behavior is impulsive if a person takes action without thinking it through beforehand or considering the consequences.

The main difference is that compulsive behaviors can be a sign of OCD

According to the Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, compulsive behaviors that may be symptoms of OCD include rearranging things until they feel just right, counting the number of people you pass on the street, and repeatedly checking the door to make sure it's locked. Of course, it's important to remember that only a psychologist can provide a definitive diagnosis, so if you think that you or someone in your life may have OCD, schedule an appointment to be assessed by a professional.


Per the Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, pretty much everyone engages in impulsive behaviors at times. Examples include spending a lot of money on something you can't necessarily afford, eating comfort food, drinking alcohol when you didn't plan on it, or yelling at someone in a moment of anger.

The center notes that certain impulsive behaviors are often fairly harmless and they aren't linked to a specific disorder. However, it's important to know that repeatedly engaging in impulsive behaviors, especially ones that are harmful to you or others, can be a symptom of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, per Nature. Only a professional can properly diagnose a mental illness if one is present.