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ADHD, Creativity, and the Concept of Group Intelligence

Two brains that work differently are better than two that work in the same way.

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 to creativity, and the evolution of intelligence. Let me explain.

In an experiment, the 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 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 were far 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 stimulant drugs 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 that teenagers 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- to 12-year-olds who had been previously identified as highly creative displayed ADHD symptoms at levels sufficiently high as to warrant a 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 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 kids 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

Now I move on to a much larger point, about the nature of intelligence and its evolution. We think of intelligence as belonging to an individual person. We measure it in individuals and give it a number. Intelligence tests were first developed as a means of predicting school performance, and in schools, as we generally know them, problem-solving is almost always done by individuals, not by groups.

I suggest here that, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes more sense to think of intelligence as a product of the group rather than a product of the individual. During all but a tiny recent portion of our evolutionary history, we were all hunter-gatherers; and research on hunter-gatherers indicates that essentially all of their problem-solving was done by groups (see, for example, Gray, 2009). Men tracked and hunted in groups, and to do so they had to solve many very difficult intellectual problems. Indeed, a whole book has been written on the theme that the mental skills involved in tracking mark the origin of science (Liebenberg, 1990). As pointed out by Wannenburgh (1979), the men involved in tracking would discuss and test various hypotheses about the meaning of the scant signs in the sand, or the way a particular branch was bent, in order to determine such issues as the species, size, speed of movement of the animal and the time of day that it had passed that spot. Similarly, women generally worked in groups to decide where and what to gather on a given day, based on cues as to what might be available in the area where they were foraging. In the evening, around the campfire, all of them would be involved in making decisions that affected the whole band, such as whether or not it was time to move on to a new campsite and where that campsite might be.

It’s easy to understand why problem-solving in these situations would be facilitated by including people with diverse cognitive styles. In particular, in relation to the ADHD research, it would seem valuable to have one or more persons in your group whose attention is easily distracted and who, therefore, shifts quickly from one observation or idea to another. In the hunting group, that’s the person who would notice a bit of fur stuck to a thorn, which the others had missed because they were so busy focusing on and debating about the mark in the sand. That’s also the person who might hear a tiger in the distance, and warn the others, who had missed that because it was irrelevant to the immediate problem they were trying to solve. Sometimes the ADHD guy can save the lives of the more studious, stuck-in-the-mud non-ADHD individuals.

I am suggesting that, historically, intelligence was the product of a network of minds working together, sometimes at odds with one another. And, in many if not most cases outside of school, that is still true today.

I have a long-time friend who is famous for his ability to put together great scientific teams. He currently heads a science department at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. I once asked him for his opinion about what makes a good scientist. I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist was something like this: Science is really a group enterprise. One person might get the Nobel Prize for something, but that person always benefits from the work and ideas of others. You need some people who are basically good stamp collectors. They just like to collect and organize things. You need others who like to monkey around with equipment. They are the ones who work out practical ways to do the research you want to do. You need others who are kind of impractical and wild in their thinking. They come up with all sorts of ideas, many of them crazy, but some of them not so crazy, some even brilliant. Then you need people who are good at sorting through ideas to see which ones fit the facts and to follow them up logically with well-designed studies. I suspect that the research teams my friend has built are not devoid of people with symptoms of ADHD.

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Abraham, A., et al (2006). Creative thinking in adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD. Child Neuropsychology, 12, 111-123.

Forster, S., & Lavie, N. (2016) Establishing the attention-distractibility trait. Psychological Science, 27, 203-212.

Fugate, C. M., Zentall, S. S., & Gentry, M. (2013). Creativity and working memory in gifted students with an without characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: Lifting the mask. Gifted Child Quarterly, 57, 234-246.

Gray, P. (2009). Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522.

Healy, D., & Rucklidge, J. (2006) An investigation into the relationship among ADHD symptomatology, creativity, and neuropsychological functioning in children. Child Neuropsychology, 12, 421-438.

Liebenberg, L. (1990). The art of tracking: The origin of science.

Swartwood, M., Swartwood, J., & Farrell, J. (2003). Stimulant treatment of ADHD: Effects on creativity and flexibility of problem solving. Creativity Research Journal, 15, 417-419.

Wannenburgh, A. (1979). The Bushmen.

White, H., & Shah, P. (2006). Uninhibited imaginations: Creativity in adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 1121-1131.

White, H., & Shah, P. (2011). Creative style and achievement in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 673-677.

Zentall, S. S. (1988). Production deficiencies in elicited language but not in the spontaneous verbalizations of hyperactive children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 16, 657-673.

Zentall, S., Kuester, D., & Craig, B. (2011). Social behavior in cooperative groups: Students at risk for ADHD and their peers. Journal of Educational Research, 104, 28-41.

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