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The Difference Between Inattention and Distraction

If there’s one thing I’m qualified to write about as an ADHD blogger, it’s distraction. Not that lack of qualifications has ever stopped me! But see? I’m already getting distracted.

Let’s start off with some basics. According to Google, a distraction is:

  • A thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else
  • A diversion or recreation

Thanks to big data, we also know that usage of the word “distraction” has risen steadily from 1950 until the present:

Interesting. But probably a topic for another blog post.

Most relevant for our purposes, “distraction” is a word that’s popularly associated with ADHD. After all, people with ADHD have an “attention deficit,” and surely the opposite of attention is distraction, right?

Actually, the opposite of attention is inattention. I’m not saying that just to pick a nit. At least, not just any nit – this is a nit that’s especially important to how we talk about ADHD.

Inattention is more general than distraction. Think of it this way: a distraction is an interruption. When you get distracted, you get distracted by something.

That’s why ADHD has become known as the “hey, look, a squirrel” disorder. This is a classic example of distraction: you’re focusing on one thing, when something else grabs your attention.

SquirrelDistraction is one way inattention can happen, but it’s not the only way. In fact, it’s only one of nine kinds of inattentive symptoms listed in the DSM.

Another kind of inattention is simply being unable to sustain focus. You can’t make your brain focus on the thing you want it to focus on. It’s not that something like a squirrel is actively interrupting your focus – it’s just that you can’t bring together the cognitive resources to focus on the task at hand, so your concentration sort of passively disperses.

Yet another kind of inattention is about overlooking details. Once again, it’s not that you only miss these details because you’re momentarily captivated by a squirrel. It’s that you’re going too fast, or your concentration is a little diffuse, or the executive parts of your brain that say “hey, don’t forget to check such-and-such detail” are asleep on the job.

Distraction is a part of inattention, but it’s not the essence of inattention. In many cases, it’s an effect of inattention rather than a cause.

That doesn’t mean we need to do away with the “look, a squirrel” trope entirely. I mean, we ADHD bloggers get a lot of mileage out of that image! (This post being a prime example.)

But a keen interest in squirrels – or a tendency to get distracted a lot – isn’t what ADHD fundamentally is. The more we talk about this condition in terms of “inattention” rather than just “distraction,” the more we’ll be able to break down oversimplified stereotypes of ADHD, and the less we’ll have to listen to people tell us “oh, yeah, ADHD, I have a little bit of that too!”

Squirrel from Flickr/Tim Green

Chart from Google Ngram Viewer

The Difference Between Inattention and Distraction

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). The Difference Between Inattention and Distraction. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 1 Dec 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Dec 2016
Published on All rights reserved.