By Kissel Goldman, PhD, BCBA-D and Dr. Cat Baker, PhD, BCBA-D
Impulsivity is one of many diagnostic criteria for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and especially characteristic of individuals with ADHD combined type. Impulsivity is when a person usually chooses a sooner, smaller over a larger, later consequence. For example, a person who chooses to rush through their work is picking the sooner, a smaller consequence of finishing their work quickly instead of the larger, later consequence of getting more answers correct. Generally, a consequence is valued less the farther away it is in time. One factor that might influence whether someone is likely to pick a smaller, sooner or larger, later consequence is how accurately they are able to estimate time. That is, their ability to reasonably guess how much time a task will take or how much time has passed. Researchers have observed that children with ADHD have difficulties estimating time. Homework that should only take 10 minutes might appear to take 30 minutes for someone with difficulty estimating time. To this person, the consequence of getting answers correct would appear 30 minutes away, while the consequence of finishing the homework quickly is only a few minutes away. Similarly, the consequences of misbehaving might seem farther away than they are.
People who are impulsive because they have difficulty estimating time are not making bad decisions so much as they are making decisions they think will lead to the best available consequences with the information that they have. Much more research is needed to know how we can improve time precision, but there are some ways that might be helpful. Allowing the experience of different delays to consequences has been seen to reduce impulsive choices. This might be helped by using a visual timer that allows a person to see how much time a task takes. Of course, rewarding close time estimations of how long a task took and is likely to take might also improve estimation. Although there is no guarantee that improving time estimation will reduce impulsive choices, it is a component that is likely to affect it and provide children with more information to make the best decisions.