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Spite as Motivation for Adult ADHD

When the positive is not working, go negative and get started!

Key points

  • Incentivizing task performance often helps adults with ADHD generate motivation.
  • Many adults with ADHD may find that incentives are not strong enough or they can receive them without doing the work.
  • Procrastination and avoidance are based on negative reinforcement and the idea that escaping a task is more rewarding in the near-term.

In the lingo of executive functions, the constituent self-directed behaviors that define self-control, emotional regulation via motivation are generating an emotion about a task that promotes initiation despite the absence of an immediate enough payoff.1

Said. Differently, we have to cajole, stimulate, exhort, or otherwise trick ourselves into doing something that we really do not want to do at that moment, even though we want the eventual outcome associated with the task. It is no surprise that various aspects of motivation and follow-through are the central sources of frustration for adults with ADHD.

There are many positive ways to stir task-oriented feelings, such as inspirational quotes, reframing and de-awfulizing the task, or thinking through how good one’s future self will feel after homework is out of the way or an exercise routine is completed. A common strategy is to incentivize task performance with some follow-up reward. This idea follows the behavioral science of positive reinforcement–achieving the desired prize is contingent upon completing the targeted behavior. The noted behaviorists Pink Floyd illustrated positive reinforcement in the background chatter during the fade out of the song "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)": “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”

Such incentivizing can be very helpful, though with our easy and immediate access to common rewards through our smartphones and with the lowered sensitivity to delayed rewards characteristic of ADHD, such positive reinforcers may often not work well or, frankly, we access the rewards without the follow-through. Indeed, many adults with ADHD describe their frustrating reliance on the pressure of a looming deadline and the potential negative consequences tied to not satisfying their obligations to motivate them to action, often in the form of an all-nighter.

This avoidance of a negative outcome and how it contributes to maintaining an ultimately unsatisfying coping strategy is based on negative reinforcement–which is NOT a synonym for punishment. Negative reinforcement is a reinforcer insofar as it increases the likelihood that behavior is learned and repeated. The “negative” refers to the direction of the reinforcer. In the all-nighter scenario, it is the removal (or avoidance) of negative consequences by meeting the deadline, albeit by an unsustainable and generally unhealthy means. Procrastination is founded upon negative reinforcement of avoidance–because it provides relief immediately, although with negative consequences down the road, not unlike building up credit card debt.

Loss aversion is a related concept because we generally have stronger negative feelings with losses than we do positive feelings with gains.2 As the Billy Beane character, portrayed by Brad Pitt, in the movie Moneyball says, “I hate losing more than I like winning.”

Source: Govinda Valbuena/Pexels
What can be worse than the task you are avoiding? Use that as a motivator for follow-through to manage adult ADHD!
Source: Govinda Valbuena/Pexels

Although it is not a typically discussed coping strategy, such loss aversion can be harnessed as a source of motivation. There is at least a goal-motivation website devoted to this principle. Users can set up accounts and outline their goals. If they do not follow through on a targeted plan, they permit them to donate money to a cause, foundation, political candidate, or other organization they oppose. The idea is similar to two sports fans of rival teams making a bet that the losing team's fan must wear the winner’s jersey to work the day after the game.

In the current discussion, adults with ADHD could make similar bets with themselves and set up a noxious (but not dangerous) consequence for lack of follow-through on an objective. Even thinking up ideas, such as wearing a rival team’s jersey, agreeing to fund a frivolous expense, attending a flower show or sporting event, or other possibilities. These consequences in mind may put a task at hand in a different light and generate emotions about it–including spite–to help with follow-through.


1 Barkley, R. A. (1997). ADHD and the nature of self-control. Guilford.

2 Tierney, J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2019). The power of bad. Penguin Press.