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Expect The Expected: How Adhd Can Be A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

By Thom Hartmann

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.

Imagine if we were to design a study where two hundred perfectly normal children were told in early grade school that they had a brain disorder. They’d be informed that they are potential problems, with a higher-than-normal risk of drug abuse, behavior problems and school failure. Their teachers would see on their academic transcripts that they suffered from a disability. And their parents would be informed that these children were facing a very difficult future. Additionally, to really bring the case home, the children would each be given two to three sugar pills a day, although we’d tell them they were a psychoactive drug that would “balance their brain.”

They would take these pills, carry the label of being defective and see a doctor monthly, for five, ten or twenty years. Careful records would be kept of whenever they acted out or failed, and their parents and teachers would be regularly questioned about such behaviors. What do you think the outcome would be?

Of course, we’ll never know…because to do such a study would be criminal. We’d be accused of child abuse, of warping the futures of a group of otherwise perfectly normal children. And the charges would be accurate. Yet if this were something we’d be reluctant to do to our most resilient and “normal” children, why would we ever inflict it on those we think may be most at risk?

In many ways, the debate that’s shaping up around ADHD resembles the classic Victorian notion that all social problems are the result of a single cause: the villain. The Victorian “villain story” was always told in four parts: a social problem is seen; a villain is identified as being responsible for the problem; the villain is rehabilitated; the social problem is solved. But in today’s world, the child whose learning style doesn’t match the teaching style of our public schools has been identified as the villain.

Lower standards and expectations are set for him, proving to him the truth of his label. And over and over again he can’t conform to the factory-like atmosphere of the school, demonstrating to him and everybody else that the label was correct in the first place. I firmly believe—and all of my experience tells me—that it is time for us to set aside these stories of sickness and villainy. It’s time for us to look at the structure and nature of our schools. It is time for us to tell the rogue elements within the research community who seek to absolutely and utterly stigmatize our children with the “no hope, no value” label of ADHD that we are not interested in our children being the villains in their dramas any more. It is time for us to give our children back their humanity and their hope.

Adapted from Thom Hartmann’s book, ADD: A Different Perception, with permission.

Thom HartmannAbout the Author:

Thom Hartmann broadcasts live daily from noon to 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on over fifty stations nationwide and on XM and Sirius Satellite radio. He is also a four-time Project Censored Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author. His national daily progressive radio talk show, now in its sixth year on the air, is also distributed to radio stations nationwide on the Jones satellite system. More people listen daily to the Thom Hartmann Program than any other progressive talk show in the nation. Visit Thom on the web at