ADHD: Superpower or Supervillain?
The post “How To Use ADHD To Your Advantage” defines multitasking as “performing multiple tasks competently at the same time.” Several posts contend that people with ADHD are more at home with multitasking than are the “neurotypical,” and some go as far as to state, “ADHDers love to multitask.”
There is less agreement in the popular posts on whether those with ADHD are actually better at multitasking than the general population. The fundamental question of whether it is even desirable to multitask is not discussed in the reviewed posts. If multitasking is on balance detrimental, a special aptitude for multitasking is not an “ADHD superpower.”
The issue of medication treatment is rarely addressed in popular posts, perhaps because if ADHD is considered a superpower, treating it does not make sense. However, since mainstream medicine and many in the ADHD community advocate medication treatment, it is a topic that needs examination. If there are advantages to ADHD, treating it could theoretically lessen or even eliminate those advantages, resulting in a worsening of the person’s overall condition. For example, if the affinity for multitasking is an adaptation that overcomes any obstacles posed by ADHD, a treatment that eliminates that adaptation would worsen functioning.
Thus, we should ask:
- Does multitasking itself result in better performance?
- If ADHD is treated successfully, does ability to multitask and/or overall task performance change?
There is clear evidence that in so-called “multitasking” the brain works on the multiple tasks by rapid attention shifts, not simultaneously. Research has confirmed the ironclad natural law that “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” by showing that there is a price the brain must pay for the “benefit” of doing two things (almost) at once. In 2001, Rubinstein demonstrated that “each task switch corresponds to time lost from completing the task.” Thus, with some sadness, I must say that while multitasking may be more attractive and enjoyable than focusing on one task, the idea that it results in greater work efficiency is a fallacy.
There is scientific evidence that multitasking results in actual impairments of learning and critical thinking. In Užule’s 2018 study of college students, performance on tests and critical thinking tasks was worse under a “multitasking condition” than under “single task conditions.” The author suggests that “certain student groups are more prone to multitasking than others, which potentially puts them at higher risk of poor academic performance.” If multitasking situations are more attractive to those with ADHD, it may be that those groups prone to multitask have a higher incidence of ADHD. If such multitasking results in poorer learning and impaired critical thinking, the reputed “advantage” derived from the ADHD brain’s inclination towards multitasking is found to actually be a handicap.
In the real world, it is unfortunately common to be required to multitask. It is therefore important to examine the hypothesis that people with ADHD are “better” at multitasking. The verdict is mixed on this, with Ewen (2012) finding a “higher cognitive cost” of multitasking in school-aged children with attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms, indicating that in this age group, children with those symptoms are worse at multitasking than those without the symptoms. However, Gawrilow (2011) studied adult men and found the ADHD group was neither better nor worse at multitasking than a “neurotypical” group.
The meaning of these age-related differences in “ADHDers” ability to multitask is currently a matter for speculation. They may imply that by the time those children classified as having ADHD reach adulthood, many or even most of have adapted to the point where it does not affect their multitasking abilities.
To summarize, there is little evidence that people with ADHD are “better” at multitasking, although they may be more “comfortable” with it than “neurotypicals.” Those with ADHD may be more attracted to or tolerant of environments requiring multitasking, but as the weight of the evidence finds multitasking to be an inefficient work technique that has an adverse effect on learning and critical thinking, it is difficult to frame this as an “advantage,” let alone as a “superpower.”
Entrepreneurship and risk-taking
The headline of a 2014 post proclaimed, “ADHD: The Entrepreneur's Superpower,” and went on to cite the self-reports of ADHD diagnoses from “business moguls,” including the founders of Ikea and JetBlue. The most intriguing (or alarming?) statement in this post was “like other entrepreneurs and CEOs, some will even tell you that they are successful largely because of the ‘diagnosis,’ not in spite of it.” Even scholarly articles set the stage with such statements, thus stamping their investigations of the ADHD-entrepreneurship relationship with the imprimatur of practical relevance.
People with ADHD characteristics are often regarded as having unusual “entrepreneurial drive and talent,” as though drive implies talent. The possibilities that the “drive” to entrepreneurship may be an effect of the difficulty ADHD poses for employment within a hierarchy is often ignored, as is the fact that “drive” and “talent” are very different things.
Before proceeding to summarize research on entrepreneurship and ADHD, I must sound a major caution stemming from the techniques used in that research . Almost all of the reviewed articles on entrepreneurial endeavors and their relation to ADHD selected people with “ADHD symptoms” as subjects comprising the “ADHD group,” as contrasted with people diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder by mental health professionals using clinical criteria as defined in standard diagnostic manuals. In most of these studies, subjects in the “ADHD group” endorsed some attention deficit or hyperactivity symptoms that are included in standard diagnostic manuals, but the subjects did not necessarily have the number of symptoms and/or the severity of symptoms to qualify for the actual diagnosis. Put simply, the bulk of the research about entrepreneurship and ADHD studied people with milder symptoms, who would not be diagnosed with the full-fledged disorder by a research psychiatrist.
I believe that these studies are still useful, in that they provide validated information about how ADHD characteristics can affect performance and perhaps be of value in the work environment, but this research must not be read as a rationale to forego treatment of ADHD. In my opinion, there is more than sufficient exposure to the anti-treatment point of view provided by the publicity accorded to business role models who claim they have ADHD and nonetheless denigrate medications. These at best poorly- informed (but highly influential) “moguls” proudly state they have never tried the medications, then claim that the same medications would have compromised or even prevented their success!
In the scientific literature, there is a preponderance of articles confirming the preference of those with ADHD characteristics for entrepreneurial careers, contrasted with an unfortunate deficit of studies of their success (or lack thereof) in entrepreneurial pursuits. A 2017 study of 14 self-employed people with ADHD did look at outcomes. Although it found that "ADHD was a key factor in their decision to go into business for themselves and decisively impacted important entrepreneurial traits: risk taking, passion, persistence and time commitment,” these article goes on to state that one out of three of the subjects’ businesses “failed or had little success.” The significance of this result is of course impossible to evaluate without information about a control group, in other words data regarding the success of businesses started by a matched group of “neurotypicals.”
A 2019 paper found that clinical ADHD “positively affects the likelihood of venturing” into “entrepreneurial action,” but rightly points out that such action and success in entrepreneurship are not synonymous. In an earlier article, the same author stated, “it is generally recognized that high levels of attention-deficit and hyperactivity have negative consequences in the workplace. Individuals who demonstrate such behaviors tend to show low job performance and a high chance of becoming unemployed.” Given such daunting prospects in the conventional “workplace,” someone with ADHD may opt for entrepreneurship as a way to avoid failure, rather than because they are specially adapted for success on such an independent path.
However, there is evidence that the preference for entrepreneurship among those with attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms is not merely for lack of better alternatives, but because the entrepreneurial environment fulfills a need related to ADHD symptoms. This was shown in a study of college students’ career intentions. Compared to those without any indication of ADHD, more of those with attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms (as opposed to the full disorder) had entrepreneurial intentions.
ADHD, like all psychiatric disorders, is actually a syndrome, meaning a collection of symptoms and signs that are observed to occur together more often than would be expected by chance. Presumably, the co-occurrence of symptoms can be explained by some underlying causal mechanism. For ADHD, this causal factor is believed to be low activity in the “behavioral inhibition system.” The purposes of this system are “to withhold an initial response to an event, inhibit ongoing behavior and resist distraction by competing happenings.”
People with ADHD seem to have a relative inability to inhibit initial responses to an event. This could explain the observed propensity for risk-taking in those with ADHD symptoms. It is noteworthy that such risk-taking has been promulgated as an “ADHD superpower,” and although calling it such is obviously hyperbole, there is some support for framing it as beneficial in certain environments. For example, a study published in 2015 by Verheul and colleagues found that the “mediating factor” linking ADHD symptoms and the preference for entrepreneurial careers was the willingness to take risks.
To summarize the relationship between ADHD and entrepreneurship, there is firm evidence that people with ADHD symptoms are more likely than the general population to pursue an entrepreneurial career. The reasons for this are less clear, but probably include the entrepreneurial environment being a “better fit” than employment in a hierarchy for people with such symptoms, as well as the fact that people with these symptoms are less averse to, or even attracted by, the risk-taking involved in entrepreneurship .
It would be necessary to demonstrate that people with ADHD symptoms or the full-fledged disorder are actually “better” at entrepreneurship even remotely justify terming it a “superpower.” I did not encounter any studies that demonstrated this. However, on a purely heuristic level, the evidence that the relative tolerance exhibited by “ADHDers” of risk-taking may result in their taking on business challenges that others will not, and in some cases that could enable outstanding success.