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How Careless Are Careless Mistakes?

When I was a kid in math class, I noticed something. Sometimes I would just write the wrong answer down. Not because I didn’t know how to find the answer, but because somewhere between knowing how to find the answer and actually finding the answer, my brain would take a little detour.

If I had to add 8 + 3, I might write down 14. Now, yes, I knew that 8 + 3 is 11, but I would add 3 to 8, then not really thinking about how I already had the answer, I’d add 3 again and get 14.

Of course, if you’re paying attention, there’s no logical reason you would calculate 8 + 3 by adding 3 to 8 twice. If you’re in a vague inattentive daze, though, and only pretending to concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s anyone’s guess how your arithmetic is going to turn out.

MistakesThese mistakes bothered me because I was pretty good at math, except when I inexplicably wrote down things that didn’t make sense. So my teachers told me I needed to focus more and be more careful, and that sounded reasonable enough to me.

The problem was, it didn’t work. Which seemed to imply that I still wasn’t focusing enough. Why not? Probably because I just wasn’t trying hard enough or because I was lazy.

You can see how something that starts with adding 8 + 3 and getting 14 turns into you thinking of yourself differently.

Granted, arithmetic mistakes aren’t the only way your brain can skip a step without you even realizing it. That glaring typo on your job application or the time you locked your keys in your apartment are examples of the same phenomenon.

I used to shrug these off as “stupid mistakes,” but I grew to dislike the term. Losing your keys makes you inattentive, not “stupid” – and yet, when these things happen often enough, people with ADHD can start to think of themselves as “stupid,” just like they can start to think of themselves as “lazy.”

After I got diagnosed and started to reflect on things like this, I revised my vocabulary – “stupid mistakes” became the more benign “careless mistakes.”

Eventually, I realized this term might not be much better. “Careless mistakes” seems to carry the connotation that the root of the problem is just not trying hard enough, that if you’d be more careful these things wouldn’t happen.

But what makes this aspect of ADHD frustrating is that resolving to concentrate harder doesn’t stop these glitches in what you think and do. In fact, it makes you feel worse because now you’re stressing yourself out trying to catch your mistakes, but you’re still behaving in a way that makes you think you’re not actually trying hard enough. You can see how this starts to get complicated.

Basically, then, we end up with the unexpected conclusion that the most technically correct term for this phenomenon isn’t “stupid mistakes” or “careless mistakes” but probably “brain farts.” Or “inattentive errors” if you prefer.

Whatever we call these moments, they’re a good example of what makes ADHD so ridiculous at times – the most trivial, automatic things are the ones that cause us some of the biggest problems because our auto-pilot apparently has a bug in it. So yes, that makes ADHD ridiculous, but also frustrating, and therefore ridiculously frustrating.

There is hope. Sometimes these trivial mistakes are just that – trivial. Their consequences are minimal or at most inconvenient (think: losing your keys). Still, in the wrong context, the ramifications can be more serious (think: driving a car). And even when the mistakes are small, small things have a way of adding up – sort of like how 8 and 3 add up to become 14!

Image: Flickr/Chris & Karen Highland

How Careless Are Careless Mistakes?

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.


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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). How Careless Are Careless Mistakes?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/adhd-millennial/2016/10/how-careless-are-careless-mistakes/

 

Last updated: 12 Oct 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Oct 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.