Background This study tested 37 Chinese male pathological gamblers and 40 controls to understand the relationship between pathological gambling and impulsivity as a long-term trait or a short-term state in the cognitive and affective domain. Results Trait impulsivity was measured by the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale-11. State impulsivity in the cognitive and affective domains were measured by the Stroop Color Word Test and the Emotional Conflict Task, respectively. The pathological gamblers scored significantly higher than the controls on the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale-11. However, there were no significant group differences in performance on the Stroop Color Word Test or the Emotional Conflict Task. Conclusions Findings clearly show that pathological gambling is associated with trait but not state impulsivity. In other words, pathological gambling is associated with an impulsivity stemming from enduring personality characteristics that lead gamblers to focus on short-term gains (trait impulsivity) rather than momentary cognitive or affective disinhibition (state impulsivity). Interventions should aim to change pathological gamblers' habitual functioning style by cultivating healthy reflection habits and focusing on long-term rewards.