How Has Jerome Kagan Influenced The Study And Treatment Of ADHD?

Updated September 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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Jerome Kagan was a  who helped to advance the study of developmental psychology in a significant way, ultimately providing us with a better understanding of how a child's behaviors and personality arise. His finding that a child’s nature is partially responsible for their development was in direct contrast to the then-prevailing view that environment and upbringing are the primary determinants. 

Kagan's research pointed to the idea that—in addition to being influenced by their home environment, social factors, and education—children are molded by their temperament and nature. This notion, which was controversial at the time, has helped shape the current landscape of child psychology. And it has helped serve as the basis for our current understanding that disorders such as ADHD are primarily genetic.

Kagan's research changed our understanding of how we behave and why. His conclusions that a child's personality and behaviors can be attributed to a mix of genetics and environmental factors, and that children are more resilient than was previously believed, were considered groundbreaking. Because of these contributions, Jerome Kagan is considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Who Was Jerome Kagan?

Jerome Kagan, born in 1929, was a renowned psychologist and researcher. Before becoming one of the foremost pioneers of the field of developmental psychology, Kagan studied psychology at Rutgers University. After receiving his B.S., he went on to Yale for his Ph.D. Following a brief teaching stint at Ohio State University, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. While in the Army, Kagan performed research at a West Point hospital. After this, he was invited to work at the Fels Research Institute, where he conducted some of his most important research in child development.

Eventually, Kagan went to Harvard to participate in the creation of the university’s first human development program. From then until he retired—aside from a year-long trip to study children in Guatemala in 1971—Kagan was a professor at Harvard, continuing with research, teaching, and clinical practice.

Kagan As An Author

Beginning in 1962 with Birth to Maturity, Kagan authored and co-authored many books and papers based on his studies and clinical experience with children. One of his most influential books is The Nature of the Child, published in 1984, in which he challenged current understandings of determinism in child psychology.

In 2004, Kagan—along with Nancy C. Snidman, Ph.D.—wrote The Long Shadow of Temperament, the culmination of a twenty-plus-year study that further elucidated the importance of temperament and biology in psychological development. The book outlines how two different temperaments exhibited by infants, inhibited and uninhibited, reveal themselves in early childhood in high-reactive and low-reactive behavior and then often manifest later in life in either withdrawn or confident personalities. This work continues to influence advancements in the field of child psychology.

One of the last books Kagan wrote was Psychology’s Ghosts: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back, a criticism of the profession of psychology. Kagan’s views on the field, and his opinions on ADHD specifically, will be discussed later in this article.

Kagan As A Researcher

Kagan's work with the Fels Research Institute involved researching personality throughout the human lifespan. He studied people of all ages, beginning in infancy, to determine whether early experiences played a part in developing individual traits, characteristics, and personality. This research provided numerous insights into how psychological effects can be prompted by upbringing and family life.

Kagan also conducted research in Guatemala that helped inform his ideas on resiliency early in life. He studied infants and young children in a village, observing that the infants were brought up in a way that prevented them from interacting with their environment or even their parents, often leading to a decrease in cognitive ability. The infants' older siblings were typically well adjusted, though, which Kagan attributed to their ability to walk around the village, interact with their environment, and socialize with others. The idea that a child's very early upbringing can be overcome—that they can thrive even after being deprived of critical early experiences—changed child psychologists' understanding of how resilient children could be.

Important Conclusions And Views

Jerome Kagan was one of the first psychologists to show that a person's biology is connected to their personality and corresponding behaviors. One of Kagan's most groundbreaking findings is that reserved, shy children often become anxious adults—but that their upbringing can alter this predisposition. His conclusions were essential to understanding how a person's nature influences their temperament throughout life.

During his previous research with Nancy Snidman, Kagan further clarified how infants and children who exhibit traits associated with shyness or anxiety could be impacted by how their parents raise them. He concluded that a shy, reactive child would be more resilient and less anxious later in life if their parents encouraged more confidence and autonomy. If the parents were more cautious, however, the child would have a better chance of experiencing anxiety and fear later in life.

Views On ADHD

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In 2012, Kagan sparked controversy regarding his views on psychology and how ADHD diagnoses were provided. Following the publication of his book Psychology's Ghosts: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back—which is primarily a criticism of current psychology practices—Kagan was interviewed by the German magazine Der Spiegel. In the interview, he expressed his concern that doctors and other mental health practitioners were over-diagnosing conditions like ADHD. According to Kagan, this is partly due to the financial incentives psychiatrists, the pharmaceutical industry, and researchers have to diagnose children with mental disorders and prescribe them medication.

The most controversial quotes from his interview are when he describes ADHD as "an invention" and attributes the high number of ADHD diagnoses to "fuzzy diagnostic practices”. He goes on to address several other issues with the profession, including how anxiety and depression diagnoses are provided.

Kagan’s remarks, specifically those about ADHD, created a stir within the psychological community and prompted many to respond by citing the large  of  that has led to a consensus in the profession that the disorder is a legitimate diagnosis. Kagan does not expand on his comments much, though. In fact, this interview is one of the only times he's publicly discussed his thoughts on ADHD. So, it's possible that these remarks were abbreviated, taken out of context, or not wholly representative of his feelings on the subject. 

While Kagan has influenced much of our understanding regarding child development, his comments do not represent the field of psychology—and they run counter to the consensus of the psychology community that ADHD is a legitimate diagnosis. 

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that significantly affects an individual's ability to function. It can impact a child's education, social life, and even physical health and will often remain a concern into adulthood. Common symptoms of ADHD in adults include trouble staying organized, lack of focus, and hyperactivity.

Seeking Help With ADHD Through Online Therapy

Studies show that online therapy is an effective method of treatment for individuals living with ADHD. In a study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, researchers found that online cognitive behavioral therapy significantly reduced ADHD symptoms—results which were sustained six months post treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a widely utilized modality that can help an individual with ADHD reframe negative thought processes that may contribute to maladaptive emotions and behaviors. 

If you'd like to talk to a therapist about ADHD or other mental health-related concerns, consider reaching out for support and guidance from the licensed therapists at BetterHelp. With online therapy, you can address symptoms of ADHD remotely, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. BetterHelp works with thousands of mental health professionals, who have a range of specialties, so you’ll have a good chance of working with someone who can address your specific areas of concern. With the help of a qualified mental health provider, you can better understand the sources of ADHD and work through your symptoms. Below are reviews of licensed BetterHelp therapists from those who have experienced similar concerns.

Therapist Reviews

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Jerome Kagan is a significant figure in the history of developmental psychology, and his contributions to the field continue to benefit mental health professionals. Given his impact, it is not surprising that his thoughts about ADHD were dissected and given a lot of weight. As with many disorders, there have been several changes regarding the mental health community's understanding of ADHD over the years. We know now that it is both a legitimate neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of people and—with the right help—a treatable one. If you are living with ADHD, know that supportive mental health professionals are available to help you live a healthy, productive life.

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