Novelty Seeking: The ADHD Personality Trait?

I’m going to describe someone with a certain personality to you. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

The person I’m thinking of is driven by a desire to engage in interesting new experiences. They hate routine with a passion, and they’re motivated to seek out situations that are exciting and stimulating.

If you know anyone with ADHD, there’s a good chance the description I just gave reminds you of that person. Many people with ADHD find they’re in their element when life is interesting and unpredictable, while they struggle to stay energized in mundane settings.

This approach to life of being oriented toward seeking out activities that are novel and rewarding is related to a personality trait – a personality trait called, appropriately enough, novelty seeking. Research suggests that, in many cases, this personality trait goes hand-in-hand with having ADHD.

Novelty Seeking as a General Personality Trait

Novelty seeking isn’t a trait that’s exclusive to ADHD. It was first proposed as a one of several basic personality traits that everyone exhibits to some extent.

We all fall somewhere along the spectrum of novelty seeking, with some of us having higher levels of novelty seeking and some of us lower levels. An example of a questionnaire designed to measure novelty seeking is the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI), where novelty seeking is listed as one of seven fundamental traits that define personality.

People with high levels of novelty seeking, as the name suggests, are excited to explore new situations. They’re motivated to seek out activities that are stimulating – thrilling, even. An example of a question used to measure novelty seeking in the TCI is:

When nothing is happening, I usually start looking for something that is thrilling or exciting.

This tendency tends to come along with a few other traits.

One of them is impulsivity. People with high levels of novelty seeking are more likely to make spur-of-the-moment decisions rather than deliberately weigh their options. They lean toward following their hunch and aren’t necessarily afraid to act based on a first impression.

They also tend to be extravagant, uninhibited and enthusiastic about engaging in activities they find rewarding. So, yes, they aren’t always the best at saving money – after all, why save money when there are so many interesting experiences to spend it on? Credit card companies probably make a disproportionate amount off of people with high levels of novelty seeking. On the bright side, you’re not so likely to hear these people described as “stingy”!

Novelty seekers aren’t always the most orderly people either. Disorderliness and a carefree attitude are hallmarks of novelty seeking. But rigid planning and tight attention to detail? Not so much.

People with high overall levels of novelty seeking can exhibit some of these traits and not others. In general, though, the more of these traits someone has, the higher they’ll score on novelty seeking.

Questionnaires used to measure novelty seeking probe several personal characteristics, some of which are fairly specific. For example, frequently initiating conversations, having a short temper, and liking to travel are all qualities that will increase someone’s score on the TCI’s novelty seeking section. In broad terms, though, the different facets of novelty seeking all relate back to being enthusiastic and unrestrained about approaching situations that are novel or stimulating.

Novelty Seeking as a Feature of ADHD

So far I’ve been talking about novelty seeking as a typical trait in the general population: some people have more of it, some have less. But it turns out that certain groups of people are more likely to score high on novelty seeking – and people with ADHD are one of those groups.

Intuitively, this might strike you as making a certain sense. After all, people with ADHD are often most motivated in situations that are new, interesting or otherwise rewarding. While ADHDers typically find themselves energized by and may even hyperfocus on certain activities they find engaging, the flip side is that their motivation tends to flag in environments that are unstimulating or boring.

In other words, people with ADHD are frequently driven by excitement. They have deficits in the abilities of self-regulation necessary to stay focused on tasks they don’t find inherently interesting, so a thirst for the novel and engaging becomes their guiding light. As you might have noticed, this emphasis on seeking out energizing situations resembles the personality trait of novelty seeking.

Several other characteristics associated with novelty seeking are typical of ADHD as well. People with ADHD are impulsive. More often than not, they lack attention to detail. They are commonly unrestrained in their spending, and their approach to life tends not to involve rigid plans forged painstakingly in advance. In fact, choose a behavior associated with novelty seeking at random, and there’s a good chance it’s also a behavior linked to ADHD.

The connection between novelty seeking and ADHD makes intuitive sense, but there’s more than intuition to back it up. A 2016 study published in BMC Psychiatry showed that in adults, novelty seeking correlates with hyperactivity symptoms, and with ADHD severity in general. A 2015 study by researchers in Italy found that novelty seeking was associated with ADHD symptoms in children, and went so far as to suggest that the personality trait of novelty seeking could be a “core feature of ADHD.”

Novelty seeking might have something to tell us about the genetics of ADHD, too. It turns out that the genes involved in shaping people’s level of novelty seeking overlap with the genes involved in shaping people’s levels of inattentive and hyperactive symptoms. One example of a gene that has been repeatedly implicated in both novelty seeking and ADHD is DRD4, which influences the dopamine system and the way rewards are processed in the brain.

The link between novelty seeking and ADHD is interesting, and it could potentially lead to breakthroughs in understanding the neuroscience and genetics that underlie ADHD. But in the meantime, is it of any practical use for ADHDers?

Potentially, yes. It highlights the need for people with ADHD to prioritize having healthy sources of novelty and excitement in their lives. People with ADHD tend to be at their best when they’re in environments that indulge their novelty-seeking tendencies. For example, a job where an ADHDer is happy and productive is a job where they are engaged and stimulated.

More generally, the lifestyle that works for someone with ADHD isn’t necessarily the lifestyle that keeps the typical person without ADHD satisfied. For people with inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, part of the package is that they’re more likely to have certain personality traits, and one of these is a need for novelty.

Image: Flickr/Delyth Angharad

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