Adults with ADHD are more likely to have accidents, to drive unsafely, to have unsafe sex and to abuse substances. These ‘real world’ impairments suggest that people with ADHD may be predisposed to making risky decisions. Many studies have attempted to address this but is only recently that their results have been aggregated into a systematic review and meta-analysis. This paper by Dekkers and colleagues reports of 37 laboratory studies of risky decision making that studied a total of 1175 ADHD patients and 1222 controls. In these laboratory tasks, research participants are given a task to complete which require that they make choices which have varying degrees of risk and reward. Using the results of such experiments, researchers can score the degree to which participants make risky decisions. When Dekkers and colleagues analyzed the 37 studies together, they found substantial evidence that ADHD people are more likely to make risky decisions than people without ADHD. The tendency to make risky decisions was greatest for those who, in addition to having ADHD, also had conduct or oppositional disorders, which both have features that indicate antisocial behavior and aggressiveness. We cannot tell from these studies why ADHD patients make risky decisions. One explanation is that it is simply the impulsivity of ADHD people that leads to rash, unwise decisions. Another theory postulates that risky decisions reflect deficits in one’s sensitivity to rewards and punishments. If we are very motivated by reward and not aware of or affected by the possibility of punishment, then risky decisions will be common. The studies analyzed in the meta-analysis were not designed to demonstrate a link between risky decision making in the lab and the real world risky decisions that lead to accidents and other outcomes. It is reasonable to hypothesize such a link, which is why clinicians should consider risky decision making when planning treatments. If you suspect deficits in this area, it will not change your approach to pharmacologic treatment but, given the potential adverse consequences of risky decisions, you should consider referring such patients to cognitive behavior therapy for adult ADHD as this talk therapy may be able to teach ADHD adults how to cope with their decision making deficits.
Dekkers, T. J., Popma, A., Agelink van Rentergem, J. A., Bexkens, A. & Huizenga, H. M. (2016). Risky decision making in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A meta-regression analysis. Clin Psychol Rev 45, 1-16.