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Expect the Expected: How ADHD Can Be a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Written by Thom Hartmann   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00
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At a recent national conference on ADHD, one speaker suggested that “good science” argues that ADHD is entirely a pathological condition—a genetic illness—and that there is no value whatsoever in a person “having ADHD.” Anybody who may seek to offer hope to ADHD children or parents was accused of telling “Just So” stories. The speaker suggested that ADHD is purely a genetic defect; his neo-Darwinist theory being that sometimes genetic problems are simply “weaknesses in the evolution,” and that “qualities of ADHD place individuals at the lower tail of an adaptive bell curve.” If you have the “defect” of ADHD, you’re doomed to struggle and most likely fail.

Let’s say (as a “Just So” story) that we identified two hundred cars as they came off the assembly line that had transmission gears made of an inferior metal. All the rest of the cars made that year had good gears, but these two hundred were weak and marginally defective. Nonetheless, we let the car company sell them in the open marketplace, and tracked all the people who bought them. Two, five, ten and fifteen years later, we would contact the cars’ owners and ask them how things are. As you can predict, there would be a higher incidence of transmission failure among those cars than among the rest of the cars manufactured that year.

This is the predicating assumption of so-called “outcome studies.” They assume that people are like cars—or any other inanimate object—and subject only to their own internal weakness or strengths. But that’s a fantasy. Dozens of studies over the years—as well as common sense—have demonstrated otherwise.

Another theory, called the social cognition theory, is much more grounded in human nature. Introduced by Albert Bandura in 1986, the social cognition theory suggests that there is not just one thing (such as a weakened brain or weak inhibition) that determines a person’s outcomes as he or she goes through life. Instead, there are at least three. They include personal factors, such as intelligence and neurology; the influence of others, particularly in social, school and family contexts; and the ability of self reflection. This last—self reflection—is perhaps the most important, because it determines the filter through which a child or adult views and experiences everything he sees, hears and feels in his life. It creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop between the social and the biological factors, which will tend to amplify whatever self-belief is held.

Cars don’t think and they don’t interact socially. Their outcome is purely a result of how well they’re made, used and maintained. They don’t create internal expectations about themselves, and then try to prove the accuracy of those expectations by testing them against the world. They don’t listen to what others tell them about who and what they are. If we told 200 cars with normal transmissions that they would have transmission failure soon, it wouldn’t affect their performance at all. They’re not listening.

But with people, such suggestions become a self-fulfilling loop. If I believe I’m not capable of asking Suzie to the school dance, for example, I won’t do it. And later, standing alone at the dance, if I watch her with somebody else, the certainty of my belief will be reinforced. I was right, and there’s the proof. So the next time I think of asking somebody out, I’ll be even more reluctant or frightened or certain that I’ll fail. Everybody has experienced this in their lives in one area or another (and no automobile ever has). As Henry Ford said, “Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, you’re absolutely right.”

That’s how it works with ADHD. We take a group of children and tell them that they have a brain disorder, and we tell their parents that they’re more likely to fail. We track down their teachers and tell them these children are genetically most likely to be the problem children in the classrooms. And then, lo and behold, they fail at a higher rate than “normal” children. How astounding! In fact, studies done on so-called “normal” children have demonstrated that children will almost always strive to meet the expectations of their parents, teachers and peers…for better or for worse.