Is ADHD Behavior the Result of an Inability to Multitask?

Adults and children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often exhibit patterns of behavior that are different from individuals without ADHD. They tend to be more impulsive, have less focused attention, and take more risks. Tests that measure inhibitory control and attention can require subjects to respond rapidly to risk/reward scenarios. Other assessment tools used to gauge symptoms of inattention in ADHD prompt subjects to answer questions that are posed one after the other. All of these methods explore levels of cognitive functioning, processing speed, and working memory. But in a recent study, Walter Roberts of the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky posed a different question.

Roberts theorized that perhaps the impulsivity and inattention associated with ADHD were not merely the result of impaired cognitive ability, but inability to multitask due to decreased response capacity. To test this theory, Roberts conducted a study comparing 33 individuals without ADHD to 38 with ADHD in two separate tasks. The first task was designed to demonstrate response-selection ability, while the second test measured working memory. Together, the two tasks captured how well the participants responded under increased processing burdens. Roberts found that as the cognitive load became greater, the performance of both groups decreased. In the first task, the decline was more evident in the participants with ADHD, which suggests that these individuals have deficits in response-selection resources.

When Roberts assessed each group on the working-memory task, however, he found virtually no difference in their performance with respect to accuracy, but the ADHD group did take longer to respond. This could reveal a task-switching impairment in those with ADHD. Also, as the time between memory tasks decreased, the performance decreased for the ADHD group. These results show that although multitasking is one mechanism that appears to be negatively affected in people with ADHD, overall memory capacity is not. “This limited processing capacity may have implications for understanding cognitive dysfunction in adults with ADHD,” Roberts said. For example, maintaining employment requires constant cognitive task-switching, making it potentially more difficult for people with ADHD than for those without. Comprehending oral and written material in classroom settings could also deplete processing capacity and result in academic challenges for children with ADHD. Roberts hopes the results of his study will open the door for further exploration into the factors that could contribute to cognitive and behavioral impairments in those with ADHD.

Reference:
Roberts, Walter, Richard Milich, and Mark T. Filmore. Constraints on information processing capacity in adults with ADHD. Neuropsychology 26.6 (2012): 695-703. Print.

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  • cece

    November 24th, 2012 at 5:22 AM

    This is kind of over simplifying things don’t you think?
    This makes it seem like if only we could teach these adults and students to handle a little more responsibility at one time then they would not feel so overburdened with not being able to get everything done all at once.
    Of corse this may have some valid points, I am sre that a lot of research has been done into it. But I think that we still need to be careful not to assume that if we fixed this one little personality trait then this wold be then answer that we have been looking for when dealing with those with ADHD.

  • lloyd

    November 24th, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    well people with adhd are said to have lower attention spans.that means they should be better able to handle multitasking isn’t it?why is it that test results show the opposite?is it that they are able to switch quickly but are not able to ‘get into’ each task quick enough?

  • Gene

    November 25th, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    While I think that it is fine and reasonable for reserachers to be seeking answers to what is the science behind ADHD I would also love it if they were to come up with a solution for how to better handle it other than medicating. There are tools that we can give to students and adults that can help them to overcome many of the challenges that having ADHD will present them with, and one of the key ones is giving them ways to better handle their case loads. They have to be able to juggle numerous actions at one time that way that rest of s find a way to do, in a way that does not feel distracting and disorienting to them. I think that you will find that if you give then these tools then many more of them who suffer will discover a new way of life that will give them overall a better quality of than the life they have been faced with before.

  • callie

    November 25th, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    multitasking requires so much effort.I think some people are generally better at multitasking than others.yes the study was conducted for participants with and without adhd but if they could compare the differences between various participants and then gauge their skills to multitask and compare that against the severity of adhd symptoms while controlling for other variables maybe we could find why this actually happens.

  • Damon

    November 25th, 2012 at 7:57 PM

    The diagnosis of ADHD has never been far away from controversy and I think this study does open up a few questions as well.Unless many studies are taken together and their results studied as one unified resources its really hard to come to a conclusion.The lack of response-selection resources is quite an issue but unless we are certain of the causes we cannot really move ahead with solutions.

  • slim

    November 26th, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    ADHD is made all the more ferocious and unmanageabke when someone with those symptoms is overwhelmed by tasks that must be performed and yet they have no skill set for getting them accomplished. So while I think that yes, there probably is a problem with how they manage their activities and multi-task, I think that this is merely a symptom of the disease and not necessarily the cause. They have to learn how to manage their day to day tasks in a more efficient way than the rest of us do, and this will probably take a lot more focus on their part. Not impossible to do, but certainly not the easiest thing for them to do either.

  • Dr. Susannah

    November 26th, 2012 at 9:35 PM

    “Multi-tasking” is a myth perpetuated by our frenetic activity by in hand 24/7 connection to the wider world. We actually only have the mental capacity to sharpen our point of focus for one thing at a time. The expectation that everyone will be able to “task-switch” at the same rate is like expecting the whole world to have the same IQ. Unreasonable.

    This study appears to demonstrate this truth. Great. Now how about spending some research money & time on alternatives for addressing AD/HD? Maybe public education on the benefits of accommodating focus disorders would be helpful. It’s definitely time to ditch the “cookie-cutter learner/student” mentality.

  • joshua

    November 27th, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    ^^ agreed. not everybody has the same ability. also, it has been shown that gender plays a role when it comes to multitasking ability. and I think to group the entire ADHD populace as incapable of multitasking would be a bit too much. more research needed into finding the reasons fro ADHD and I’m sure there will be many more findings. we just need to keep an eye and weed out the ones that hold no water.

  • Ernie

    November 27th, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Thank you Dr. Susannah! Well said!

  • Holly

    May 13th, 2015 at 1:39 PM

    Thank you Dr. Susannah. Even with medication helping, there are so many things dealing with task switching that I have much more difficulty than peers/coworkers handling. I wish people understood that I’m doing the best I can. It affects everything from conversations to work performance. By the time I get things down, the boss’s attitude isn’t good..it’s just, well it’s about time you figured it out. I am sick of the expectations placed on me. I might do a really good job, if given a little extra time to get it down. It is everywhere.. What really hurts is that, I’m not good at that, but I’m smart at other things, and if you’d wait a little longer.. I can get the task switching requirements for a job down. I wish everyone that ever said, “Just pay more attention”, caught ADHD as an airborne disease. Then maybe you would comprehend it. I don’t even think that it’s really all bad to have. I just think in a different way..not a wrong way. I wish you could see all the ideas And RaNDOmnEss inside.. I notice playing games that I look too far ahead and do things too quickly. I think in a way adhd has something to do with an overactive anticipatory signal In brain. It is different for different people. This incredible drive that is all over the place, creativity and frustration it would be amazing if people could work together, and our unique abilities could be used, without so much focus going into what we are bad at. I wish people knew what it was like.

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