Odd One Out Oeuvre

Animated gif of Mabel from Gravity Falls with her green Dorito earring. She's shrugging and grinning as she says "I've found my people."

It goes without saying that people with ADHD are often treated like outsiders by the neurotypical community, and that finding a large community of other people with ADHD feels returning home to your alien planet.

The surreal part is just how similar we all seem to be. We’ve been conditioned to think of ourselves as abnormal for so long that when we’re amongst our true peers, the normalcy can be jarring.

And yet what we find is that people who share similar brains exhibit similar traits. Dani Donovan’s comics beautifully capture many of these shared ADHD traits in a way that seems eerily telepathic, but they’re based on a staggering body of research.

At first, I found it kind of hard to believe that ADHD explained more than just my attention span. I had the same skepticism as when I first learned about rejection sensitivity.

The fact that my response to rejection is largely predictable for someone with ADHD has triggered a serious realignment of my self-concept. I now realize that sensitivity to rejection is, dare I say it, normal for people with ADHD.

Photo of four girls sitting on a couch. Three of the girls are laughing with each other and the fourth is looking away sadly. They are probably making fun of her. They are dickweeds.

I’m undergoing an even larger realignment to adjust to the fact that a significant portion of my personality is derived from my ADHD brain. And what I’ve learned from ADHD Twitter is that my personality (warts and all) is shared with countless others who also have an ADHD brain.

It’s almost like having an ADHD brain comes with an inclination toward certain traits. With variations depending on whether you’re Inattentive, Combined, or Hyperactive, there appears to be an ADHD personality, warts and all.

Are you still skeptical? I hope so, because if you have ADHD, then I’ve got the results of a personality test you didn’t even take that will resonate far more than it should.


The Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) is a questionnaire based on Dr. C. Robert Cloninger’s biopsychosocial theory of personality, which “comprises four temperament (Novelty-Seeking, Harm-Avoidance, Reward Dependence, and Persistence) and three character (Self-Directedness, Cooperation, and Self-Transcendence) dimensions.”

Photo of Dr. Robert Cloninger sitting in front of a bookshelf in a lab coat from Washington University. He's speaking to a man in the forefront.
Dr. Cloninger, in the flesh.

In Cloninger’s theory, “all four temperament dimensions are related to innate dispositions (i.e., genetic), while all the three character dimensions are influenced by environmental factors (social learning), and they moderate the influence of the temperament dimensions.”

Those seven dimensions of temperament and character are further broken down into 3-5 subscales. For example, the Novelty-Seeking subscales include exploratory excitability, impulsiveness, extravagance, and disorderliness. The TCI is an attempt to objectively measure an individual’s personality.

It’s worth mentioning that critics claim there are serious limitations with the TCI and Cloninger’s theory has been challenged by more recent ideas. When I asked a friend who’s a mental health professional about it, she said, “I think it’s been overshadowed by other issues in clinical work, which tend to be more salient and probably call some of that thinking into question in general.”

Nevertheless the results in studies comparing people with and without ADHD using the TCI are striking. There’s this impressive meta-analysis that includes 20 studies using the TCI to measure subjects with ADHD. If you’d like the read the authors’ summary of results, I’ve included an addendum below, but it isn’t necessary to understand the results.

If you like, you can read it now and then come back for the results. I’ll wait.

Animated gif of a man passionately singing "I'll wait for you." It's rather silly.

The main conclusion was that there was a significant positive associations for Novelty-Seeking and Harm Avoidance with ADHD (so, high rates of both), and significant negative associations for Reward Dependence, Persistence, Self-Directedness, and Cooperativeness with ADHD (low rates).

Together, this result gives us a rough sketch of the personality profile for an average person* with untreated ADHD, based on the TCI and Cloninger’s biopsychosocial theory of personality. Taking all the previously mentioned caveats into consideration, also bear in mind that these descriptions include all of the subscales, so some traits described may be more or less relevant to you personally.

What that means is these descriptions won’t match you entirely, but you will definitely see yourself in there, for better or worse. And remember that the more negative aspects described below are largely explained by executive dysfunction.

For the descriptions of the personality dimensions, I found a great explanation of types and what it means to have high or low rates of each. I have also divided the descriptions by the effect size. The larger the effect size, the stronger the relationship between the personality dimension and ADHD.

Let me know what you see in there.

*Average White men, to be accurate. The meta-analysis only discloses gender, which is heavily weighted toward men. At a glance, there isn’t a lot of disclosure of race, but one I did find was 87% White. So, odds are good the racial composition is weighted toward White subjects over PoC subjects. However, I suspect the results will ring familiar for anyone with ADHD. There just isn’t a deep well of research to back that hunch up.

Large Effect Size

Individuals high in Novelty Seeking tend to be quick-tempered, excitable, exploratory, curious, enthusiastic, ardent, easily bored, impulsive, and disorderly. The advantages of high Novelty Seeking are enthusiastic and quick engagement with whatever is new and unfamiliar, which leads to exploration of potential rewards. The disadvantages are related to excessive anger and quick disengagement whenever their wishes are frustrated, which leads to inconsistencies in relationships and instability in efforts.

Individuals who are low in Self-Directedness are described as immature, weak, fragile, blaming, destructive, ineffective, irresponsible, unreliable, and poorly integrated when they are not conforming to the direction of a mature leader. They are frequently described by clinicians as immature or having a personality disorder. They seem to be lacking an internal organizational principle, which renders them unable to define, set, and pursue meaningful goals. Instead, they experience numerous minor, short term, frequently mutually exclusive motives, none of which can develop to the point of long lasting personal significance and realization

Medium Effect Size

[L]ow scorers on the Cooperativeness dimension are described as self absorbed, intolerant, critical, unhelpful, revengeful, and opportunistic. These individuals primarily look out for themselves. They tend to be inconsiderate of other’s rights or feelings.

[I]ndividuals low in Persistence are viewed as indolent, inactive, unreliable, unstable and erratic on the basis of both self-reports and interviewer ratings. They rarely intensify their effort even in response to anticipated reward. These persons rarely volunteer for anything they do not have to do, and typically go slow in starting work, even if it is easy to do. They tend to give up easily when faced with frustration, criticism, obstacles, and fatigue. These persons are usually satisfied with their current accomplishments, rarely strive for bigger and better things, and are frequently described as underachievers who could probably accomplish more than they actually do, but do not push themselves harder than it is necessary to get by.

Small Effect Size

Individuals high in harm avoidance tend to be cautious, careful, fearful, tense, apprehensive, nervous, timid, doubtful, discouraged, insecure, passive, negativistic, or pessimistic even in situations that do not normally worry other people. These individuals tend to be inhibited and shy in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be low and they feel chronically tired or easily fatigued. As a consequence they need more reassurance and encouragement than most people and are usually sensitive to criticism and punishment. The advantages of high Harm Avoidance are the greater care and caution in anticipating possible danger, which leads to careful planning when danger is possible. The disadvantages occur when danger is unlikely but still anticipated, such pessimism or inhibition leads to unnecessary worry.

Individuals low on the Reward Dependence are often described as practical, tough minded, cold, and socially insensitive. They are content to be alone and rarely initiate open communication with others. They prefer to keep their distance and typically have difficulties in finding something in common with other people. An advantage of low Reward Dependence is that independence from sentimental considerations leads to practical and objective views that are not romanticized by wishful thinking or efforts to please others. This social detachment can also be a disadvantage when lack of sensitivity in social communication interferes with the cultivation of beneficial social affiliations.

ADDENDUM

The full summary of results reads (with my emphasis):

The findings showed significant positive associations for Novelty-Seeking and Harm Avoidance with ADHD, and significant negative associations for Reward Dependence, Persistence, Self-Directedness, and Cooperativeness with ADHD. Findings showed differential magnitudes of association between each of Cloninger personality dimensions and ADHD. There were large effect sizes for Novelty-Seeking and Self-Directedness. The effect sizes for Persistence and Cooperativeness were medium. The effect sizes for both Harm Avoidance and Reward Dependence were small. The results for the moderation analyses showed that Harm Avoidance and Persistence were moderated by age group. Further, the source of the sample also moderated the effect size for Persistence. In contrast, none of the other relations between personality dimensions and ADHD were moderated by either age or whether participants were recruited from clinics or from communities. The association between ADHD and Harm Avoidance was moderated by age, and was significant, positive, and had a medium effect size for adults, but was not significant for children. The association between ADHD and Persistence was moderated by age, and was significant, negative, and had a small effect size for adults, while it was significant, negative, and had a large effect size for children. In relation to the moderation by source for the association between ADHD and Persistence, it was significant, negative, and had a small effect size for the community sample, while it was significant, negative, and had a large effect size for the clinic-referred sample.

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