ADHD News & Research

Punishment Avoidance Strongly Motivates Behavior of Children with ADHD

What motivates children with ADHD? According to a new study, the threat of punishment motivates strong task avoidance, regardless of the child’s cultural background.

September 16, 2021

Children with ADHD may experience greater behavioral sensitivity to punishment, according to a new study that found subjects with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder more likely than controls to avoid tasks with a relatively higher likelihood of punishment for failure, even if the likelihood of reward for success was also elevated. Researchers found a bias among children with ADHD toward less punished alternatives, according to the Journal of Attention Disorders study, which also found that avoidance of punishment led to poorer task performance.1 This was true across cultural backgrounds. Past research on the factors that motivate children with ADHD has focused largely on the impact of rewards, not punishment.

Researchers evaluated children with and without ADHD from the United States, New Zealand, and Japan. Participants in two studies (210 English-speaking and 93 Japanese-speaking) chose between two simultaneously available games. Responses on one game were punished four times as often as were responses on the other.

Compared to participants without ADHD, children with ADHD gave significantly more responses to the less frequently punished game. The bias toward the less punished game increased with time on task, even though avoiding the more punished game led to missed reward opportunities and reduced earnings.

These findings suggest that children with ADHD have an elevated behavioral sensitivity to punishment. The researchers urge caregivers to exercise caution when using punishment with this population.


1 Furukawa, Emi, et al. Increased Behavioral Sensitivity to Repeated Experiences of Punishment in Children With ADHD: Experimental Studies Using the Matching Law. Journal of Attention Disorders (Sep. 2021)