ADHD, Creativity, and the Concept of Group Intelligence

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Peter Gray Ph.D.

By Peter Gray Ph.D.
I happened across a research article the other day that reported a surprising, counterintuitive finding that got me thinking about a number of things–ADHD, its possible relationship tocreativity, and the evolution ofintelligence. Let me explain.

In an experiment, inclusion of a person with ADHD greatly improved the problem-solving ability of groups, even though it led to more off-task behavior.



The article was by Sydney Zentall and colleagues (2011), at Purdue University.  They were interested in the social behaviors of children with symptoms of ADHD and how those behaviors might affect the actions of those with whom they were interacting.  To conduct the experiment, they formed groups consisting of three middle-school students per group.  The experimental groups contained one student with ADHD symptoms and two without such symptoms, and the control groups contained only students without the symptoms.  In order to give the groups something to interact about, they presented each with two problems to solve—the same two problems for each group.  The problems were such that solving them required both insight and logic.  The researchers’ primary interest was in the cooperative and apparently uncooperative ways the individuals in each group interacted with one another as they attempted to solve the problems.

Here’s what they found concerning social interactions.  As predicted, the ADHD students often made irrelevant and uncooperative comments, which diverted the group’s attention away from the problem to be solved. This kind of behavior was contagious; the non-ADHD students in the experimental groups also showed less cooperative and more off-task behavior than did the non-ADHD students in the control groups.  So far this all points against the value of including someone with ADHD in your group.

But now, here’s the surprising finding.  The groups containing an ADHD student werefar more likely to solve the problems than were the control groups! In fact, 14 of the 16 groups (88%) containing an ADHD student solved both problems, and none (0%) of the 6 control groups did.  This result was significant at the p < .0001 level, meaning that there is less than one chance in 10,000 that such a large difference, with this many groups, would occur by chance.

What is going on here?  How is it that the groups that were least cooperative and apparently most off-task were able to solve the problems so much more reliably than the highly cooperative groups without an ADHD-disrupter?

The authors of the article give us no clue, at least not in this article.  Their main purpose was to score the degree of cooperation and disruption going on, and those results fit their prediction—the ADHD-contaminated groups behaved in ways that appeared less cooperative and less task-oriented than the non-contaminated groups.  The researchers weren’t particularly interested, in this study, in whether or not the groups actually solved the problems.  They reported the problem-solving results as unpredicted and surprising, but did not discuss them at all. Their methodology included no observations concerning the actual contributions that each group participant played toward solving the problem.  Were the ADHD kids solving the problems themselves? Or were they contributing some unique insight that then helped the others solve the problems?  Or were the ADHD kids, perhaps by way of their “disruptive behavior,” loosening the thinking of the whole group, which improved everyone’s problem-solving ability?

I should note that the “ADHD students” in this experiment were not students who had officially been diagnosed with ADHD.  Rather, they were students who were scored by their teachers as having the characteristics of ADHD, using the official diagnostic checklist, but had never been labeled so by a physician.  An advantage of this over using officially diagnosed ADHD students is that none of them were taking the stimulantdrugs typically used as treatment.  So these were non-drugged students with ADHD-like characteristics.

The results led me to wonder if there is other research indicating that peoples with ADHD symptoms are better than others at solving certain kinds of problems.  So I did a little digging into the research literature, and here is what I found.

ADHD symptoms improve “out-of-the-box” thinking and interfere with “in-the-box” thinking.

It turns out that quite a few research studies have been conducted to compare ADHD participants with non-ADHD participants in problem-solving ability.  Indeed, Zentall has been involved in some of that work.  In one study, he and colleagues found thatteenagers who had been identified as “gifted” and who also showed symptoms of ADHD scored higher on the Torrence Tests of Creative Thinking (a standard test of creativity) than did similarly gifted, non-ADHD teenagers (Fugate, Zentall, & Gentry, 2013).

Another study found that 40% of 10-12 year-olds who had been previously identified as highly creative displayed ADHD symptoms at levels sufficiently high as to warrant diagnosis of the “disorder” (Healy & Rucklidge, 2006).  Another study found that ADHD children told more richly imaginative stories than did non-ADHD children (Zentall, 1988). Another found that ADHD teenagers were better at coming up with novel ideas for new toys and were less constrained by examples of old toys than were non-ADHD teenagers (Abraham et al., 2006). Another found that ADHD college students outperformed non-ADHD students in the Unusual Uses Task (where you think of unusual uses for objects (White & Shah, 2006). Another study found that ADHD college students preferred problems that involve generating new ideas, while non-ADHD students preferred problems that involve elaborating upon or extending old ideas (White & Shag, 2011). Another study found that children who had been diagnosed with ADHD performed better on a test of creative elaboration when they were off of Ritalin (the drug used to treat the “disorder”) than when they were on Ritalin (Swartwood et al., 2003).

Taking all of the research together, the studies indicate that ADHD symptoms correspond with improved performance on tasks that involve divergent, or “out-of-the-box” thinking, but interfere with tasks that involve convergent, or “in-the-box” thinking. ADHD students generally perform poorly in school, because school involves almost entirely in-the-box thinking.  In fact, thinking out of the box can get you in trouble in school.

So, here’s my hypothesis about what was going on in those groups of middle-school children that contained someone with ADHD symptoms:  The ADHD kid was generating new ideas about how to solve the problem, and the non-ADHD kids were following through on those ideas in a more focused way to see which ones would actually work. So, even though a lot of tomfoolery was going on in those groups, efficient problem-solving still occurred.   In contrast, the groups with no ADHD kid may have been stuck in the mud because nobody was coming up with new ways of trying to solve the problem.  They kept persisting—in a highly cooperative, focused, and teacher-pleasing way—on a route that seemed most obvious but wasn’t working. I wonder if this hypothesis could be tested in a new analysis of the videotapes from that study.

The concept of group intelligence, and a theory about the evolution of intelligence

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