ADHD News & Research

Study: Self-Determination Theory Could Guide Research on ADHD and Motivation

The self-determination theory, which centers on intrinsic motivation and internal motives, could provide a framework for broadening our understanding of motivation and the role it plays in individuals with ADHD, according to a study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders.

December 9, 2021

The self-determination theory (SDT), a motivational framework, may help broaden and inform research on the role and source of motivation in relation to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), according to a new study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders.1

The study finds that considering the mediating role of internal motives in relation to environmental factors and behavior, as described in the SDT, could help researchers generate and interpret new studies on the interplay between motivation and ADHD.

ADHD is characterized, in part, by motivational deficits that can contribute to challenges in various domains. The authors note that commonly accepted theories on this relationship focus on dopamine deficiencies, which impact reward centers, and the role of reinforcement and external triggers on behavior. Researchers have paid little attention, they write, to other parts of motivation, like internal motives.

Internal motives comprise needs, perceptions, and emotions, all of which can serve as mediators between external triggers and behavior or action. For example, when a child is sent to do homework, the command is the external trigger, but internal motives (the child’s belief that homework is useful or pointless, their emotions related to homework, etc.) ultimately drive the child’s behavior in this framework. External triggers merely influence conditions and indirectly drive behavior.

Internal motives are central to the SDT, which defines motivation as a natural, internal tendency toward growth, ideally through autonomous, voluntary choices. To reach this point, however, basic psychological needs such as competence, autonomy, and relatedness must be met first. Otherwise, the tendency toward growth (motivation) is hampered. (Example: If doing homework makes a child feel competent, the child is more likely to experience voluntary motivation. Escaping punishment for not completing homework is not as strong a motivator.)

Further, the authors believe the SDT framework may even inform clinical interventions for individuals with ADHD, as in the case of existing SDT-based intervention programs focused on autonomy support.

1Morsink, S., Van der Oord, S., Antrop, I., Danckaerts, M., & Scheres, A. (2021). Studying Motivation in ADHD: The Role of Internal Motives and the Relevance of Self Determination Theory. Journal of Attention Disorders.