Many college students truly have ADHD and deserve to be treated but some attempt to fake ADHD symptoms with the goal of getting stimulant medications for non-medical uses such as studying and getting high. Some students who fake ADHD also seek to gain accommodations that would give them additional time to complete exams. To address this issue, two psychologists examined data from 514 university students being assessed for ADHD to evaluate the ability of assessment tools to detect students who fake ADHD symptoms.

All participants had asked to be assessed to determine whether they could qualify for disability services. This was therefore by no means a random sample of university students, and could be expected to include some non-ADHD individuals seeking the benefits of an ADHD diagnosis. But this offered a good opportunity to explore which combination of tools would yield the best accuracy, and be best at excluding malingerers.

That was achieved by using both multiple informants and multiple assessment tools, and comparing results. Self-assessment was supplemented by assessment by other informants (e.g. parent, partner, friend, or other relative). These were supplemented with symptom validity tests to check for telltale highly inconsistent symptom reporting, or symptom exaggeration, which could signal false positives.

On the other hand, some individuals with ADHD have executive functioning problems that may make it difficult for them to reliably appraise their own symptoms on self-assessment tests, which can lead to false negatives. Performance validity tests were therefore also administered, in order to detect poor effort during evaluation, which could lead to false negatives.

Observer reporting was found to be more reliable than self-reporting, with significantly lower inconsistency scores (p < .001), and significantly higher exaggeration scores (p < .001). More than twice as many self-reports showed evidence of symptom exaggeration as did observer reports. This probably understates the problem when one considers that the observer reports were performed not by clinicians but by parents and partners who may themselves have had reasons to game the tests in favor of an ADHD diagnosis.

Even so, the authors noted, “External incentives such as procurement of a desired controlled substance or eligibility for a desired disability accommodation are likely to be of more perceived value to those who directly obtain them.” They suggested compensating for this by making ADHD diagnoses only on the basis of positive observer tests in addition to self-reports: “Applying an ‘and’ rule—one where both self- and observer reports were required to meet the diagnostic threshold— generally cut the proportions meeting various thresholds at least in half and washed out the differences between the adequate and inadequate symptom validity groups.”

They also recommended including formal tests of response validity, using both symptom validity tests and performance validity tests. Overall, they found that just over half the subsample of 410 students administered performance validity tests demonstrated either inadequate symptom or performance validity.

Finally, they recommended “that clinicians give considerable weight to direct, objective evidence of functional impairment when making decisions about the presence of ADHD in adults. The degree to which symptoms cause significant difficulty functioning in day-to-day life is a core element of the ADHD diagnostic criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), and it cannot be assumed that significant symptoms cause such difficulty, as symptoms are only moderately associated with functional impairment. … we urge clinicians to procure objective records (e.g., grade transcripts, work performance evaluations, disciplinary and legal records) to aid in determining functional impairment in adults assessed for ADHD.”

Jason M. Nelson and Benjamin J. Lovett, “Assessing ADHD in College Students: Integrating Multiple Evidence Sources With Symptom and Performance Validity Data,” Psychological Assessment, published online January 31, 2019

Stephen V. Faraone, PhD

About Stephen V. Faraone, PhD

Dr. Faraone is the Principal ADHD Expert for ADHD in Adults. He is Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and is a member of the Board of APSARD, the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders. He is the Principal Investigator for ADHD in and serves on the Advisory Board.