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9. Motivational problems with ADHD

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9. Motivational problems with ADHD

Motivation is a willingness to act as an activating moment to achieve a specific goal. The conversion of motivation (willingness to act) into action takes place through the drive.1 Another definition of motivation is the process of initiating, controlling and maintaining physical and mental activities, including the mechanisms for favoring an activity and controlling the strength and persistence of reactions.2

Problems with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are a typical symptom of ADHD.3

Procrastination, devaluation of later rewards and delay aversion are closely linked to ADHD and stress.

Procrastination is a common ADHD symptom in which tasks and actions are put off for an unnecessarily long time.
In ADHD sufferers, it is not the basic ability to prioritize that is impaired, but rather an inappropriate prioritization program that is activated, which means that unimportant things cannot be distinguished from important ones. Procrastination can also be seen as a symptom of stress. Under stress, those affected focus on the things that are important in the here and now and ignore everything else. This can lead to things that do not need to be done immediately being perceived as less important and worthwhile.

The devaluation of later rewards, also known as delay discounting, is another symptom of ADHD. Those affected value delayed rewards less than people without ADHD. Immediate rewards are valued just as much as by non-affected individuals. This may be related to a dysfunction of the reward system in the brain.

Delay aversion is manifested in the fact that ADHD sufferers find waiting unpleasant and have difficulty postponing things that are intrinsically interesting or important or exercising patience. Delay aversion correlates with other symptoms of ADHD such as restlessness and frustration intolerance. Delay aversion is not solely due to an inhibition problem, but is also related to emotional dysregulation. Stress-reducing measures can reduce delay aversion.

9.1. Procrastination (procrastination)

9.1.1. Procrastination as a symptom of ADHD

We consider procrastination to be a consequence of the devaluation of distant rewards (delay discounting) on the one hand and an altered perception of what is intrinsically interesting on the other. Procrastination could represent the opposite pole of delay aversion in the sense of a regulatory disorder.

9.1.2. Procrastination: not being able to do things until the last minute

Not being able to do things until the last minute is another description of procrastination. The explanation arises from the stress benefit of procrastination, that in the event of existential stress, things that are not immediately necessary are ignored in order to focus on the things that are acutely important now. If you can distinguish between unimportant and important things in an acute emergency, you have a survival advantage. It was not so helpful for survival to admire the beautiful flowers at the side of the path while fleeing from the sabre-toothed tiger or to want to take the ripe fruit from the bush behind as a supply for the winter.

The problem with ADHD is not a fundamentally incorrect prioritization (in the sense of a general “technical” inability to do so), but an inappropriate prioritization program (stress reactions without adequate stressors). In ADHD sufferers, it is not the neurophysiological ability to differentiate between important and unimportant things that is impaired, but rather an emergency program that is activated without there being an appropriate reason for this. This emergency program is useful (for all higher organisms) in the event of acute stress that threatens survival. In this case, the focus is shifted to the things that are important in the immediate here and now - everything else is blocked out or postponed.

The actual ability to concentrate and pay attention is not impaired in ADHD. It is the ability to direct attention that works differently in those affected than in those not affected.

9.1.3. Procrastination as a symptom of stress

Many sources, especially from management literature, report that procrastination causes stress due to the resulting time pressure.
However, medical studies show that procrastination can also be a consequence of stress,4 although the correlation is somewhat weaker than that of anxiety, depression or fatigue.56

In our opinion, the evolutionary-biological stress benefit of procrastination, as with the inability to enjoy life, is a focus on the most important stressor. Less important things are devalued in terms of their importance, while the immediately important things are upgraded, as would be correct in survival-relevant situations. The assessment of what is important and what is unimportant for survival must inevitably always be made by the affected living being itself. In survival-threatening situations, it is helpful to evaluate one’s own needs more strongly than the needs and requirements of others (extrinsic motives). Attention is therefore focused on personal interests, while less interesting requirements are devalued. More on this at Stress benefits - the survival-promoting purpose of stress.
As a result, all things that do not have to be done immediately will be perceived as less important and worthwhile by those affected by stress and ADHD than by those not affected.
Subjectively unpleasant things are therefore postponed proportionately more and often only dealt with at the last minute - only then do they slip into the stress-induced focus on the here and now. Until then, they are too far away to be interesting.
Severe stress says: survive now - you can enjoy and recover later.
In the case of a healthy (short-term) stress reaction, this is correct and helpful.

9.2. Devaluation of later rewards (delay discounting / reward discounting)

Other names for “delay discounting” are “temporal discounting”, “intertemporal choice” or “impulsive choice”.7

Devaluation of later rewards / delay discounting can be seen as a reversal of delay aversion (aversion to waiting, impatience). Both can be seen as an expression of a stress-related change in motivation. One review considers delay discounting to be a subtype of impulsivity.8 The core message is: Survival is now. Now is the time to defend oneself against relevant dangers, everything that is later is currently unimportant. Everything that is important must happen immediately, everything that is not so important that it does not have to happen immediately can wait until the stressor is defeated.

9.2.1. Devaluation of later rewards as an ADHD symptom

ADHD sufferers typically suffer from a reward deferral aversion: a smaller reward immediately rather than a larger reward later.8910 This is compounded by inconsistent decision-making patterns.11

For everyone, immediate rewards are intuitively more rewarding than delayed rewards. However, the decrease in the value of later, delayed rewards is significantly higher in ADHD sufferers than in non-affected individuals. While immediate rewards are rated the same by ADHD sufferers as by non-affected individuals, ADHD sufferers rate later rewards as significantly lower or less attractive than non-affected individuals.

ADHD sufferers are therefore significantly less motivated by rewards that lie in the future. There is a stronger incentive through immediately available rewards.

Manifestations of the preference for immediate rewards / devaluation of delayed rewards are:

  • Addiction problems

Addiction and striving for immediate reward

The stronger incentive of immediate rewards seems to be related to an affinity for addiction.
ADHD sufferers may have significantly fewer dopamine D2 and D3 receptors in the reinforcement center of the brain (the striatum) than non-affected people. In one study, the number of these receptors correlated with attention: the fewer D2 and D3 receptors in the reward center, the lower the attention ability of those affected.12 Attention problems could therefore have the same cause as the problems of the reward system.
In contrast, another study indicates an increased D2 receptor density in the striatum in ADHD sufferers.13

  • Procrastination
    The devaluation of tasks that are not immediately important is a related reaction.

9.2.2. Devaluation of later rewards as a stress symptom

Also known as Discounting of Delayed Rewards or Temporal Discounting14151617

Rewards that are given immediately are valued by stress sufferers in the same way as by people without stress.
Rewards that are further away in time are seen as even less attractive than by people without stress.

Forms of expression:

  • Procrastination
  • Addictive tendencies
  • Disorder
  • Poorer ability to self-regulate
    • Self-regulation ability is an even better predictor of professional success than intelligence

Addiction problems are closely linked to the preference for immediate rewards. Addiction problems are typical symptoms of stress

  • Drug / nicotine / alcohol abuse (addiction)1819
  • Smoking correlates with stress15

9.3. Delay aversion

Delay aversion can be described as the mirror image of the devaluation of later rewards (delay discounting) and represents the opposite pole of procrastination in the sense of a regulatory disorder.
Delay aversion occurs in both children and adults with ADHD. Delay aversion is a persistent motivational deficit that can be reduced or eliminated by increasing subjective motivational incentives.20

9.3.1. Delay aversion in ADHD

9.3.1.1. Impatience; waiting is perceived as unpleasant
  • When others are slow to understand, it drives you crazy
  • Parents get upset when their children are slow to understand homework21
  • Tasks are started without first listening to the instructions or reading the manual.
    This is one of the 9 most common symptoms of ADHD in adults22
    • Operating instructions are read diagonally at best before commissioning devices
    • People don’t like to read furniture assembly instructions
  • Particularly strong aversion to traffic jams, queues; up to the point that these can make them aggressive,21 whereby the latter is probably less likely to affect the ADHD-I subtype
  • Difficulties waiting for your turn
  • Inner restlessness when you are not supposed to act yourself but accompany the actions of others
    • E.g. tendency to carry out tasks of others themselves instead of letting them do it (possibly slower / worse, because first learning)
  • Tendency to interrupt others
  • Answers are given before the question has been heard to the end
  • Exuberant ideas must be communicated quickly before they are in danger of being forgotten21
  • Drive faster than others21
    This is also one of the 9 most accurate symptoms of ADHD in adults.22

Note: These behaviors are also found in those affected by e.g. acute (hypo)mania, narcissistic or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

The fact that boredom is perceived as extremely unpleasant is more likely to be due to dysphoria caused by inactivity

9.3.2. Correlation of delay aversion with other symptoms

According to the current data from the ADxS symptom test (June 2020, n = 1,889), delay aversion does not appear to result solely from an inhibition problem, as is the case with impulsivity, but correlates significantly more strongly with inner restlessness and frustration intolerance than with impulsivity and than impulsivity with these. The correlation with emotional dysregulation also appears to be higher than with impulsivity
Interestingly, the correlation of procrastination aversion with procrastination appears to be significantly lower than with impulsivity and the correlation of procrastination with impulsivity is the same as with procrastination aversion.

Symptoms Delay aversion / impatience Impulsiveness
Inner restlessness 0.85 0.69
Frustration intolerance 0.79 0.57
Impulsiveness 0.67
Delay aversion / impatience 0.67
Reward deferral problems 0.58 0.46
Inability to recover 0.57 0.45
Inattention 0.56 0.53
Hyperactivity 0.55 0.59
increased sensitivity 0.53 0.43
Rejection sensitivity 0.53 0.41
Procrastination 0.34 0.34

As of June 2020. n = 1,889- The values given reflect the correlation of the symptoms relative to each other.this is a non-validated online self-test (screening).

9.3.2. Delay aversion as a stress symptom

Delay aversion is also understood as an impulsivity reaction. It correlates with impulsivity under stress and, in women, with an increasing heart rate.2324

Stress-reducing measures also reduce delay aversion.14


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  2. Zimbardo (2004): Psychologie, zitiert nach Mayer: Glossar Psychiatrie / Psychosomatik / Psychotherapie / Neurologie / Neuropsychologie: Motivation

  3. Smith, Langberg, Cusick, Green, Becker (2019): Academic Motivation Deficits in Adolescents with ADHD and Associations with Academic Functioning. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2019 Nov 18. doi: 10.1007/s10802-019-00601-x.

  4. Kim, Hong, Lee, Hyun (2017): Effects of time perspective and self-control on procrastination and Internet addiction. J Behav Addict. 2017;6(2):229-236. doi:10.1556/2006.6.2017.017

  5. Klein, Brähler, Dreier, Reinecke, Müller, Schmutzer, Wölfling, Beutel (2016): The German version of the Perceived Stress Scale – psychometric characteristics in a representative German community sample. BMC Psychiatry. 2016 May 23;16:159. doi: 10.1186/s12888-016-0875-9. PMID: 27216151; PMCID: PMC4877813.

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  7. Mitchell (2019): Linking Delay Discounting and Substance Use Disorders: Genotypes and Phenotypes. Perspect Behav Sci. 2019 Jul 10;42(3):419-432. doi: 10.1007/s40614-019-00218-x. PMID: 31976442; PMCID: PMC6768927.

  8. Levitt, Sanchez-Roige, Palmer, MacKillop (2020): Steep Discounting of Future Rewards as an Impulsivity Phenotype: A Concise Review. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2020;47:113-138. doi: 10.1007/7854_2020_128. PMID: 32236897.

  9. de Castro Paiva, de Souza Costa, Malloy-Diniz, Marques de Miranda, Jardim de Paula (2019). Temporal Reward Discounting in Children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A Systematic Review. Dev Neuropsychol. 2019 Sep;44(6):468-480. doi: 10.1080/87565641.2019.1667996. REVIEW

  10. Yu, Sonuga-Barke, Liu (2018): Preference for Smaller Sooner Over Larger Later Rewards in ADHD: Contribution of Delay Duration and Paradigm Type. J Atten Disord. 2018 Aug;22(10):984-993. doi: 10.1177/1087054715570390. Epub 2015 Feb 11. PMID: 25672671.

  11. Gabrieli-Seri O, Ert E, Pollak Y (2022): Symptoms of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Are Associated with Sub-Optimal and Inconsistent Temporal Decision Making. Brain Sci. 2022 Sep 28;12(10):1312. doi: 10.3390/brainsci12101312. PMID: 36291246; PMCID: PMC9599375.

  12. Volkow, Wang, Newcorn, Kollins, Wigal, Telang, Fowler, Goldstein, Klein, Logan, Wong, Swanson (2011): Motivation deficit in ADHD is associated with dysfunction of the dopamine reward pathway; Mol Psychiatry. 2011 Nov;16(11):1147-54. doi: 10.1038/mp.2010.97.

  13. Ilgin, Senol, Gucuyener, Gokcora, Sener (2001): Is increased D2 receptor availability associated with response to stimulant medication in ADHD. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2001 Nov;43(11):755-60. n = 9

  14. Buhusi, Olsen, Yang, Buhusi (2016): Stress-Induced Executive Dysfunction in GDNF-Deficient Mice, A Mouse Model of Parkinsonism. Front Behav Neurosci. 2016 Jun 21;10:114. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00114. eCollection 2016

  15. Fields, Leraas, Collins, Reynolds (2009): Delay discounting as a mediator of the relationship between perceived stress and cigarette smoking status in adolescents.Behav Pharmacol. 2009 Sep;20(5-6):455-60. doi: 10.1097/FBP.0b013e328330dcff

  16. Braun, Helmeke, Poeggel, Bock (2005): Tierexperimentelle Befunde zu den hirnstrukturellen Folgen früher Stresserfahrungen. In: Egle, Hoffmann, Joraschky (Hrsg.) Sexueller Missbrauch, Misshandlung, Vernachlässigung. 3. Aufl, S. 44 – 58

  17. Eckerle (2010): Neurobiologische Forschungsergebnisse über den Zusammenhang zwischen Hochbegabung und psychischen Störungen (z.B. ADS) in der Adoleszenz.

  18. Hebold, Stress und Stressverarbeitung bei Kindern und Jugendlichen, in: Schluchter, Tönjes, Elkins (Hrsg.), (2004): Menschenskinder! Zur Lage von Kindern in unserer Gesellschaft. Band zur Vortragsreihe des Humanökologischen Zentrums der BTU Cottbus, Seite 86

  19. Satow (2012): Stress- und Coping-Inventar (SCI); PSYNDEX Test-Nr. 9006508; Test im Testinventar des Leibniz‐Zentrum für Psychologische Information und Dokumentation (ZPID).

  20. Marx (2014): Das Konzept der Verzögerungsaversion bei Personen mit einer Aufmerksamkeitsdefizit-/Hyperaktivitätsstörung (ADHS) – Entwicklungsaspekte, Bedingungsfaktoren und differentialdiagnostische Befunde. Dissertation.

  21. Krause, Krause (2014): ADHS im Erwachsenenalter, S. 61

  22. Barkley, Benton (2010): Das große Handbuch für Erwachsene mit ADHS, Seite 22

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  24. da MattaI, GonçalvesIIi, BizarroI (2012): Delay discounting: concepts and measures; Psychology & Neuroscience; On-line version ISSN 1983-3288; Psychol. Neurosci. vol.5 no.2 Rio de Janeiro July/Dec. 2012 http://dx.doi.org/10.3922/j.psns.2012.2.03

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