Defining Compulsive Behavior

Judy Luigjes*, Valentina Lorenzetti, Sanneke de Haan, George J. Youssef, Carsten Murawski, Zsuzsika Sjoerds, Wim van den Brink, Damiaan Denys, Leonardo F. Fontenelle, Murat Yücel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Compulsive tendencies are a central feature of problematic human behavior and thereby are of great interest to the scientific and clinical community. However, no consensus exists about the precise meaning of ‘compulsivity,’ creating confusion in the field and hampering comparison across psychiatric disorders. A vague conceptualization makes compulsivity a moving target encompassing a fluctuating variety of behaviors, which is unlikely to improve the new dimension-based psychiatric or psychopathology approach. This article aims to help progress the definition of what constitutes compulsive behavior, cross-diagnostically, by analyzing different definitions in the psychiatric literature. We searched PubMed for articles in human psychiatric research with ‘compulsive behavior’ or ‘compulsivity’ in the title that focused on the broader concept of compulsivity—returning 28 articles with nine original definitions. Within the definitions, we separated three types of descriptive elements: henomenological, observational and explanatory. The elements most applicable, cross-diagnostically, resulted in this definition: Compulsive behavior consists of repetitive acts that are characterized by the feeling that one ‘has to’ perform them while one is aware that these acts are not in line with one’s overall goal. Having a more unified definition for compulsive behavior will make its meaning precise and explicit, and therefore more transferable and testable across clinical and non-clinical populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-13
JournalNeuropsychology Review
Publication statusPublished - 23 Apr 2019


  • Compulsivity


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