By Catherine Middlebrooks and Alan Castel, PhD

We are often distracted.  When using a computer, most people have several browsers or windows open simultaneously, and it is estimated that we check our phones about every seven minutes.  Sometimes these distractions make us lose our focus.  These distractions can be obvious, like a notification on your smartphone that you have a new message or subtler, like the sounds of traffic or a conversation in a nearby room.  We can try to avoid major distractions—perhaps finding a quiet place free of WiFi and people—but we are never completely free from distracting thoughts.  Moreover, complete solitude is generally neither feasible nor desirable.  We are social creatures; frankly, an absence of all interaction, and any resulting loneliness, could itself be a source of distraction.

Besides, rather than pare down stimulation, people largely seem more inclined than ever to seek out extra attention-demanding activities.  People talk, text, listen to music, and navigate with their smartphones when driving even when they know it is dangerous.  Many studies have demonstrated the costs to memory of multitasking and divided attention [1], and this aligns with our everyday experiences. Why, then, do we persist in multitasking—juggling smartphones, laptops, phone calls, and family responsibilities, when we know this comes at a cost?

Aside from the obvious reasons (meetings can be boring, but Instagram has pretty pictures), maybe we are less able to judge the costs of multitasking because the cognitive resources that we need to make such judgments are already being used (to multitask!).  Although we seem to be broadly aware that memory suffers when attention is divided [2], we also fail to apply this knowledge to specific instances, as when deciding how well we’ve learned or remembered something [3].  The same misjudgments are made when people text and drive: We know it’s theoretically a bad idea, but we don’t realize just how much it’s actually affecting our driving until it’s too late.

Recent research, however, suggests that people sometimes do recognize and compensate for the negative effects of divided attention on learning and memory.  Does this suggest that multitasking isn’t actually a problem?  Not quite—distractions and multitasking have consistently been shown to be no friend to memory.  It does, however, suggest that there are few factors worth considering when deciding whether or not to indulge in a little multitasking. 

1. Can you call a quick time-out? 

If you are taking attention away from your primary task, like a meeting, to attend to something else, like an email, without being able to pause it, multitasking will very likely impair your ability to remember the primary information at a later time.  If you can pause your primary task, though, then the occasional interruption may not be as much of a concern.

In one set of experiments, participants read or listened to short passages, during which they were interrupted by questions that would pop-up on the computer screen like an instant message [4]. These interruptions impaired memory when there was no pause in the passage, like a speaker in a meeting doesn’t wait while we scroll through our news feed.  Memory was unaffected, though, when participants could momentarily pause their studying to answer the pop-ups.

2. How distracting is the distraction?

Relatedly, learning and memory may be most affected when the distraction(s) require your continuous attention.  Researchers found that comprehension of and memory for text was maintained even when participants were also solving math problems or answering unrelated trivia questions [5].  The same could not be said, however, when participants were asked to hold a series of digits in mind while studying the text.  In other words, when the multitasking was more demanding, memory was impaired.

3. Can you prioritize when deciding on what to focus?

Oftentimes what we are trying to remember varies in importance.  Recent research proposes that distractions and multitasking may not be as detrimental to your ability to prioritize and remember the most important information as it is to your memory overall [6]. 

Participants in these experiments studied words that were worth anywhere from 1 to 10 points with the goal being to remember as many words as possible while also earning a high score (a sum of the points associated with any remembered words). Unsurprisingly, participants remembered fewer words overall when they were multitasking.  Critically, though, distractions had no effect on how well they could prioritize and ultimately remember the higher-valued items.  This was found regardless of whether there was simply music playing in the background while participants studied or whether they were also actively engaged with a difficult and continuous task.

This suggests that you may still be able to identify and focus on the most important information when distracted to somewhat offset the general costs to learning and memory. Keep in mind, though, that participants in these experiments were studying information that had already been given values. The most challenging thing may not be only in choosing to prioritize important information and executing that decision, but also in determining what is most important in the first place.

To be or not to be (distracted)?

Ultimately, multitasking and superfluous distractions are generally ill advised when avoidable—and we should certainly err on the side of caution when we will need to later remember information that is currently being presented—but all is likely not lost if you’re occasionally interrupted by a text or if someone nearby turns on the radio.  In some cases these distractors may prove entirely inconsequential; in other cases we may still be able to compensate for them by pausing to address them or by prioritizing and focusing our attention on the most important information.  Our world is filled with tantalizing distractions, and we seem to adapt by being selectively focused.

References

1. Craik, F. I. M., Govoni, R., Naveh-Benjamin, M., & Anderson, N. D. (1996). The effects of divided attention on encoding and retrieval processes in human memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 125, 159.

2. Junco, R., & Cotten, S. R. (2011). Perceived academic effects of instant messaging use. Computers & Education, 56, 370-378.

3. Kelley, C. M., & Sahakyan, L. (2003). Memory, monitoring, and control in the attainment of memory accuracy. Journal of Memory and Language, 48, 704-721.

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