I'm engaged in a battle. Me, my kids, and my husband, fighting off evolution in the service of the ad agency. 

You see, last year, my New Year's resolution was to stop looking at my computer screen when my family talks to me.   IT'S HARD.

I often work at home, sitting in the midst of family, pulling together lectures on my laptop, answering student e-mail,  doing editorial work, writing papers, or running statistics.   So when someone talks to me, it's always a struggle.  I look up, make eye contact, and nod, but I can feel the tug. It's as though my eyes are being dragged from the faces of my kids to the screen. 

In fact, they are.  Three things are pulling me:

Screens are always changing.  Our attentional resources are constantly scanning for change and novelty.  That's where most threats come from. This is called an orienting response Psychologists use that in studies of preverbal infants.  For example, the reason we know that infants can reliably tell red from green by two weeks of age is that they look longer at green objects after seeing a series of red ones.  Infants (and adults) gaze longer at a novel than a familiar stimuli.

Advertisers know that.  Every time our screens move, our attention (and eyes) are pulled in that direction.  Stable advertisements fade into background.  But change the screen color, put a moving animation to the right of the page, or add a line of running text along the bottom, and suddenly your attention is caught. 

Glancing at your screen amplifies visual signals.  Interestingly, tearing your eyes from your child's face to the screen increases the saliance of the screen's message.  Humans have the capacity to attend to stimuli they are not looking at directly (see link).  However, the neurons that move our eyes to attend to a particular stimuli also magnify those signals to make them stand out from other things in the field.  Thus the act of moving your eyes from face to screen makes those signals even harder to ignore.

And you can't ignore text.  Text - which is almost ubiquitous both on the internet - but also increasingly along the bottom of our television screens - cannot be ignored.  The Stroop effect is something most Intro Psych students are familiar with.  It refers to the fact that you cannot look at text without reading it (try it - you can't see a word and not know what it says). 

Thus screen movement pulls my eyes to it, magnifies it's salience, and forces me to process it.  Even a flashing cursor - always there if I'm in a word processor or statistics program - can pull your eyes and make you read. 

Close the screen!

Despite that, my last year's resolution was relatively successful. 

How? 

Out of sight, out of mind.  When someone talks, I look up and CONSCIOUSLY stop looking at the screen.  If it is clear that this is a real conversation and not just a quick question, I go to the next step: CLOSE THE LAPTOP.   With the screen flipped out of sight - though not enough to go to sleep - I can talk without having my brain constantly alerting me to incipient danger lunking on my screen. 

And that's something both my kids and my husband have come to appreciate.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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