Research has shown that people with attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) have cognitive and functioning deficits. They often have high levels of impulsivity and low levels of task attention. These deficits can result in social, personal, and academic difficulties. In the study of ADHD, numerous strategies have been tested to improve attention and decrease impulsivity. Among them are behavioral and cognitive approaches, some of which have been shown to be successful.
But an existing theory at the core of ADHD research is that of reward motivation, which suggests that people with ADHD respond better and demonstrate less impulsivity and more attention when rewarded compared to when there is no reward for a task. To test this theory further, Ivo Marx of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Rostock in Germany recently recruited 38 adults with ADHD and 40 without ADHD for a controlled experiment. In the experiment, the participants underwent a battery of cognitive tests with and without rewards. The response times, false positives, impulsivity rates, and overall performances were measured and compared.
Marx found that the individuals with ADHD exhibited higher levels of impulsivity and lower levels of attention when there was no reward present. However, when a reward was offered, they were less impulsive and their outcomes had fewer false positives. In other words, their performance was better and far improved in the presence of a reward. In fact, the participants with ADHD performed similarly to those without ADHD when they were motivated by a reward.
Marx believes that these findings, which are in line with existing research, underscore the importance of reward motivation for people who tend to be impulsive. The results suggest that perhaps being motivated by a reward encourages individuals with ADHD to slow down their reaction times and engage a “stop-and-think” strategy. Additionally, these results show the importance of such a strategy for improving outcomes for cognitive tasks. This could be extremely useful at helping ADHD individuals improve their cognitive outcomes in various settings, including personal, academic and professional arenas. Marx added, “Taken together, our results support the existence of both cognitive and motivational mechanisms for the disorder, which is in line with current models of ADHD.”
Marx, I., Höpcke, C., Berger, C., Wandschneider, R., Herpertz, S.C. (2013). The impact of financial reward contingencies on cognitive function profiles in adult ADHD. PLoS ONE 8(6): e67002. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067002
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