“Could try harder!”: Self-control, cognitive control and ADHD


I saw an interesting article the other day in the BPS research digest. The author states that although the term “cognitive control” and “self-control” are often used interchangeably, a new study claims that they do not involve the same mental processes.

“Cognitive control” is usually defined as the ability to “ignore distracting information or stimuli”, presumably while completing a task. It involves executive functions of task-switching, working memory and inhibition. “Self-control” is usually associated with the ability to defer immediate gratification in favour of a better long-term outcome.

Deficits in executive functioning are generally held to be a major part of the difficulties faced by a person with ADHD. This lack of executive functioning ability can carry an upside too, but that’s for another blogpost 😉. The article made me think of how potentially damaging the confusion between cognitive and self- control can be. Many ADHD’ers are constantly told by others that they lack self-control, when the real culprit is probably an impairment in cognitive control. More worryingly, when I have discussed the nature of ADHD with others, I all too often get a reaction along the lines of “ADHD, huh? Just sounds like a lack of willower to me!”. This reaction is usually accompanied with a sneer. Not helpful when it comes to de-stigmatising an oftimes controversial, but well-researched neuro-developmental condition.

The notion of self-control carries a value judgement along with it. It is something that our society values very much, with those that are seen to lack it earning disapproval and stigma. This stigma can be seen in terms such as “feckless” and “good-for-nothing”,  which often make their way into mainstream media. It’s not hard to see how this can be very damaging to a person with ADHD who, no matter how much self-control they feel that they are exerting, understandably fall down when it comes to tasks involving cognitive control. Such tasks could include switching attention to one’s housework, or homework. (Or even switching attention from the blogpost that I’m writing to the reading that I know I should be doing). That sets the scene for feelings of guilt and shame, and over time, poor self-esteem and learned helplessness.

Hopefully, if the body of evidence for cognitive control as a distinct process from self-control is built upon, more effective interventions and management strategies can be developed. In addition, it would be nice if it hit the mainstream to the extent that people with ADHD, many of whom are doing their damnedest to manage their difficulties, can get a bit of a break.