What Is Delay Aversion And How Does It Impact People With ADHD?

It's estimated that 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults are currently living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — a neurological disorder that leads to executive dysfunction, impairing someone's ability to govern their thoughts, emotions, and actions (per American Psychiatric Association). It's common for people with ADHD to struggle with everyday tasks like managing their emotions, staying organized, following directions, sitting still, and paying attention (per Cleveland Clinic).

While inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity have long been recognized as the main markers of ADHD, in recent years the medical community has begun investigating the role that delay aversion plays in people with ADHD. A 2018 study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry explains that delay aversion describes the extreme sensitivity that people with ADHD have when met with a delay before receiving an expected reinforcement. While this was previously seen as a lack of impulse control, research suggests that, for people with ADHD, it might be much deeper than that.

For those with ADHD, delayed reinforcement can cause stress

While it's true that having to wait for something we want can be aggravating for any person, the study explains that for people with ADHD, it can be particularly difficult. The brain, nerve networks, and neurotransmitters of people with ADHD work a little differently than those in people without the disorder, and in developmental stages — when all of our needs are met almost instantaneously — it triggers a reward circuit in the brain that solidifies an expectation for immediate gratification. Over time, this need for a reward without delay feeds into delay aversion.

When people with ADHD experience delay aversion, it's more than some bratty need to have what they want when they want it. Instead, when reinforcement is delayed, it can create an extremely stressful situation for them. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology discovered that when children with ADHD were subjected to delayed reinforcement or no reinforcement, it activated a "fight-or-flight" response that left them feeling afraid or angry. When waiting creates such a visceral emotional response, it's not hard to imagine why people with ADHD would seek to avoid the task altogether. However, by participating in delay aversion, when a situation arises where instant gratification cannot be achieved, people with ADHD often defer to inattention and hyperactivity (per The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry).

Managing delay aversion

While the medical community is still attempting to understand why people with ADHD struggle more with delay aversion, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychology suggests that it may stem from an association of negative emotions with delayed reinforcement, the tendency to discount the value of future rewards, and a lack of stimulation.

In support of this, a 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology discovered that children with ADHD were more likely to opt for smaller immediate rewards than larger delayed ones. However, a 2006 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines found that for people with ADHD, larger delayed rewards may seem more appealing if stimulation is involved during the delay. This suggests that people with ADHD may be able to manage delay aversion by ensuring that they have enough stimuli. If the anticipation of a delayed reward causes feelings of anxiety, people with ADHD may try making smaller milestones on their way to a larger achievement, feeding their need for reinforcement without dismissing greater rewards.