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The Unknown Unknowns of ADHD

Donald Rumsfeld famously said that there are “known knows,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” These are the things we know we know, the things we know we don’t know, and the things we don’t know we don’t know, respectively.

Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld: an underrated ADHD commentator?

I’d like to make the case that Mr. Rumsfeld has a contribution to make to our understanding of ADHD. In particular, that the idea of known knowns and unknown unknowns can shed some light on the experience of inattention.

We talk about attention and inattention as a black-and-white, yes-or-no state: you’re either paying attention or you’re not. But I think there are at least three ways of paying attention. In honor of the United States’s illustrious former Secretary of Defense, I’ll call these attentive attention, attentive inattention and inattentive inattention.

Attentive attention is when you’re paying attention, and you’re aware that you’re paying attention. If you’re talking to someone, you know what the other person is saying, and you know you know what the other person is saying. Attentive attention leads to known knowns.

Attentive inattention would be when you’re not paying attention and you’re attentive to the fact that you’re not paying attention. When we experience this state, we have thoughts like: “come on, try to focus” or, after the fact, “damn, I totally missed that.”

Attentive inattention leads to known unknowns. If you ask someone’s name and then don’t pay attention to the answer, you know that you don’t know their name, and you’re aware that you weren’t paying attention.

That leaves us with inattentive inattention. You aren’t paying attention, and you don’t even realize there’s something you should’ve been paying attention to. Inattentive inattention leads to, you guessed it, unknown unknowns. Which means that for ADHDers, inattentive inattention is potentially the most dangerous kind.

For example, let’s say someone relays an important piece of information to you but you aren’t listening – and you’re not listening so much that you don’t even know an important piece of information has been relayed to you in the first place. If this were a case of attentive inattention, you would know that you’d missed out on that information, so you could seek it out. But you don’t even know you’re missing the information in the first place, so you’re unlikely to find out until it’s too late.

Unknown unknowns highlight what I like to call the gamble of inattention. When you’re not paying attention, you’re trying your luck: if you’re lucky, the information you’re missing out on isn’t important; if you’re less lucky it is. The point is that you won’t really know until it’s too late because, well, you’re not paying attention!

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

The Unknown Unknowns of ADHD



APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2018). The Unknown Unknowns of ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 24 Apr 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Apr 2018
Published on All rights reserved.