What is perseveration?

By Amanda Morin

Expert reviewed by Ellen Braaten, PhD

At a glance

  • Some people can get “stuck” on thoughts or getting an answer to a question.

  • This behavior is called perseveration.

  • People don’t do it on purpose or to be defiant or stubborn.

Many of us get fixated on an idea once in a while. But with some people, it happens more often. Perseveration is when someone “gets stuck” on a topic or an idea. You may have heard the term in regard to autism, but it can affect others, too.

People who perseverate often say the same thing or behave in the same way over and over again. But they can get stuck on their emotions, actions, and thoughts, too. And they do it past the point where it makes sense or will change anything. 

It can be frustrating for everyone involved, especially the person who’s stuck. It's not that they won’t stop. It’s that they don’t know how to stop. They may not even know they’re perseverating in the first place. It’s like they’re stuck in a loop they can’t get out of. 

There’s a difference between perseverations and obsessions. Obsessions are more severe and are often part of a mental health condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, people may have both OCD and other learning and thinking differences, like ADHD.

People who perseverate aren’t being defiant or stubborn. They have challenges that cause them to get stuck. They might struggle with managing stress, processing information, shifting attention, or putting the brakes on certain behaviors or thoughts.

Perseveration can also be a coping mechanism for people when they feel overwhelmed, anxious, or not familiar with a situation.

Dive deeper

About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD is a child psychologist, professor, and founding director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital.