All Aboard the Motivation Train – ADHD and operant conditioning


Hello to all my ADHD peeps, and ADHD loved ones living with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). By request today I am going to talk about motivation. First off, I want to thank Frank(ie) for the question it gives a little bit of motivation to myself to have something to answer because it feels like I am able to help people a little bit. Without further commentary let’s get to it. 

Have you ever been demotivated and avoided starting a project because it feels pointless, or you feel like its not relevant? Have you been called lazy because you just can’t get it together and you struggle to meet timelines? This is a problem that a lot of people with ADHD deal with and it is okay to feel this way. I want to start this by saying you are not lazy; ADHD and motivation are intertwined differently and what works for one person may not work well with another. There can be a lot of trial and error to find a motivational reward system that works for you.

Having issues with motivation can cause a lot of problems with maintaining healthy relationships, self-esteem, physical health, and mental health. Something I typically notice with ADHD is if I am not interested in a subject, I will do what I can to avoid that subject for as long as I can. This can cause a lot of problems with spatial repetition learning (learning something multiple times in ever increasing intervals). This spatial repetition is extremely important to maintain when completing programs that require you to not just learn the material one time but requires you to hold the material for long periods of time. 

So how do I prevent procrastinating for long periods of time and not getting work done, having my house become a mess, or only learning on a superficial level? That is a really good question that I’m going to try and answer. I want to start by looking at how our brain works on a broad scale. Having ADHD means that you have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is important for many things inside our brain like motor control, mood, motivation, and reward seeking behavior. There are a lot of theories as to why our dopamine is lower than the rest of the population, but a popular theory posits that when our dopamine is released it is removed quickly so it is not able to exert its effects for as long. So, with these decreased dopamine levels, people with ADHD are going to have a more difficult time developing motivation as well as are constantly seeking out ways to increase our dopamine levels. This is what typically causes the riskier behavior seen in ADHD. 

Motivation and reward pathways are closely tied together. A non-ADHD person gets dopamine released when thinking about getting a good grade on a test, doing well on a work project, or having a clean house. That dopamine release helps motivate those people to complete those tasks because they already start to feel good. This doesn’t happen for ADHD, for us we have to actually have something tangible as a reward to get that dopamine kick. This means that we need to trick our brain into activating our reward pathways.

There is no catch all thing you can do to trigger your reward system, what works for me might not work for you. But I want to talk about how to create a successful system for you. For that I’m going to use an example. Personally, I love games because they make me feel like I am accomplishing something even if it is small, so I’m going to use a game as my example.  

First off we are going to need a small reward, this game I will use a single chocolate chip. It’s important to make your reward small so that you aren’t taking a lot of time away from your work and aren’t building unhealthy habits like eating a scoop of ice cream every 30 minutes. So, for this example I am going to use a single chocolate chip. And since I’m in medical school I’m going to use studying as my goal. So, I am going to study the material that we learned in class for thirty minutes straight without distractions. After thirty minutes if I am able to maintain focus that entire time, I will roll a six-sided dice and let the odds determine if we get the chocolate chip or not. If the number is even, I get the chocolate chip if the number is odd, I don’t get the chocolate chip. I will then take a 5-minute break and get back into studying. 

Like I said you may have to change up the pattern or way that you do this. Other examples that I’ve heard people use include making the bullet points on their to-do list flowers and you get to color in the flower when you complete a task, or if you struggle with fidgeting setting an allotted time to sit and work, say 30 minutes, and at the end of the 30 minutes play your favorite song and dance to it to get out the energy, then sit down and do it again. Since we are constantly dopamine seeking, exciting your brain with a favorite treat, song, or small activity give us the dopamine kick we’re looking for

So then the question is does this really work? If we look at the basic ideas behind operant conditioning it is easy to see that yes, these motivational strategies work. Operant conditioning was largely established by an American Psychologist by the name B.F. Skinner who explained it as “behavior that is controlled by consequences” (ncbi). An important note here is that consequences in society often has a bad connotation, in this sense it just means an outcome. It doesn’t have to be a bad term a consequence of your actions could be good or bad. If you study hard for an exam you end up with a good grade. The good grade is the consequence of your studying. Either way I don’t think we need to dig too deep into the semantics of the word consequences. There are two main parts to this theory:

First, we have modifiers which create a consequence for our behavior. There are positive modifiers which will add a consequence and negative modifiers which will remove a consequence. 

Second, we have reinforcements that will allow the behavior to be encouraged. We also have punishments that will discourage a behavior. 

Seeing these in effect makes it a lot easier to understand. We have to take a piece from the modifiers and a piece from the control to create the four tenants of this theory. 

            First form is positive reinforcement. Think of this as eating a chocolate chip after studying for thirty minutes.

            Second form is positive punishment. Think of this as receiving a ticket for speeding. 

            Third form is negative reinforcement. Think of this as taking an aspirin to reduce a headache.

            Fourth form is negative punishment. Think of this as not being allowed to watch TV because you didn’t complete your homework. 

This theory has a lot more aspects to it that I didn’t go into, but this is a basic picture of it. 

Another important factor to why these games and motivators work is classical conditioning. What is classical conditioning? I thought you would never ask. Have you ever heard of a man named Pavlov and his dogs? Well, he was a physiologist that worked with dogs and determined that the dogs salivate upon arrival of food This isn’t rocket science I’m sure you have smelt some amazing food and you have had the same reaction. The weird part was the dogs started associating the sound of footsteps with food and in turn salivated whenever they heard the lab assistants’ walking towards the lab. This doesn’t sound so amazing, but you can use this response for anything. With a little work Pavlov was able to cause the dogs to salivate whenever a metronome started. In the case of these dogs the food was accompanied by the metronome and footsteps. After time the dogs associated the metronome with food and if you started the metronome the dog’s brains were convinced that food was on the way. Interesting right? 

Why is this important and how am I using this in my game? That’s a very good question. Have you ever wondered why people gamble? The reason behind gambling is not far removed from the Pavlov theory of classical conditioning and it uses different time periods between the conditioning responses known as a variable-ratio schedule. The basic idea behind this is not rewarding a behavior every time, but to keep your brain guessing. If you give the reward every single time your brain just expects the reward and is content with okay, I do thirty minutes and get rewarded. If you stretch this our and create a random pattern your brain goes into hyperdrive. You wanted that chocolate chip and you thought about it during your study time, but you didn’t get it because the stupid dice ended up as an odd number. Maybe next time I will get the chocolate chip so I need to do another thirty-minute session so I can finally enjoy my treat that I earned. Now translate this over to gambling and you can see how gambling can become so addictive so easily. It’s all random, but your brain absolutely loves those bright lights when you win. Even if you only win a small amount like $50 that feeling is euphoric because you were so close so many times before, but this was the time you won. Well, how hard could it be to win again, the last time you spun the wheel it was only a little bit away from the jackpot it can’t be that far away from a winner. I can promise you it is most likely really far away from a winner because casinos have perfected this especially with these new computer-controlled slot machines which in my opinion are pretty predatory. 

Like I said earlier, I created my chocolate chip game in the hopes that it gives you an idea of why motivational rewards will work. Will this work for 100% of the people that try it? Absolutely not there are going to be people that have more issues finding that motivation and there are going to be people that are absolutely able to thrive in these circumstances. Creating a reward pathway to make up for our deficit in dopamine is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. It rewards our brain and gets us motivated to do the things that we may not be excited about doing, but need to do to advance towards our goals. 

After all of that science talk, I want to explain a few more things just to give a little bit of perspective. To this day it is difficult for me to get motivated sometimes. There are days where I wake up and just want to lay in bed, cuddle, and relax, and I don’t have the drive to get up and push a study session for ten hours. But that’s okay. So long as you do your best, you will never disappoint yourself. I went through all of my schooling for undergrad and ended up with one A- and it broke me up for a while because I really wanted to accomplish Summa Cum Laude. But looking back I think I am glad that I ended up getting that A- because it loosened me up a little bit. I went from stressing and disliking studying to thinking if I get an A- or B+ as long as I did my best and took care of myself there are worse things that could happen to me in life. 

Be fair with yourself no matter who you are and don’t compare yourself with other people. You are amazing and you are going to learn, work, and do things uniquely. Find what works for you and don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family, teachers, or mentors if you are struggling. I know it is really easy to look at a problem and think I can handle it on my own, but you don’t have to do everything on your own. Ask for help, ask for guidance, and more importantly talk about what is going on in your head with your loved ones. There is a lot of stress in life to be the best, but you are never going to be the best if you don’t take care of yourself. 


16 Oct, 2021
Living with ADHD

Author: Workers' Archive

Covering sensitivity at work and beyond on my website:

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