Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt
This month CALM will be focusing on selective attention. Selective attention is the skill of ignoring distracting stimuli. In other words, selective attention is your ability to focus on one task and ignore things not related to that task. Last month we talked about a related concept, multitasking. The better you are at selective attention, at focusing, then the less likely you are to multitask. You won’t switch attention back and forth between distractions and the task at hand if you have the ability to ignore the distractions in the first place.
One of the major misconceptions about selective attention is that you can’t change it – that some people are just good at focusing and others are just bad and there’s nothing you can do to change that. While it’s certainly true that some of us are blessed with better selective attention than others (full disclosure: I am unfortunately NOT one of them…), it’s not true that we can not improve our selective attention skills. Research shows that selective attention can improve with training for children, adolescents, young adults, and older adults (Karbach & Verhaegen, 2014; Karbach & Unger, 2014). However, while you can improve your selective attention, you should be aware of the limitations of training. When we talk about selective attention we’re talking about selective attention as a domain general ability – your ability to focus on reading a book, responding to an email, or having a conversation with the person in front of you. You see the biggest gains in training for selective attention in domain specific abilities, however. In other words, you can get better at reading a book in a noisy environment, like a bus or subway, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get better at focusing on responding to that email once you get into work. There is some hope for small domain general improvements, but by and large the biggest effects are seen with domain specific improvements (Karback & Verghaegen, 2014).
Cognitive psychologists call the ability to see gains in one domain after training in another, transfer. In general, across most cognitive abilities like memory and attention, it’s very difficult to get transfer across domains. This means you should be wary of any program claiming to improve your memory in general or your attention in general. While you can greatly improve at the tasks you are training on, it’s very unlikely that you will improve on those cognitive abilities across the board. For a review of the research on brain training games, see this interesting article from the Association for Psychological Science.
If you want to improve your selective attention, practice at the task you are having trouble focusing on (Diamond, & Ling, 2016). For example, if you’re a student who finds it difficult to study in a noisy environment, you should practice studying in increasingly noisy or distracting environments. Studying in a quiet space will have the short-term effect of allowing you to focus for that study session, but in the long term it won’t help you deal with noisy cafes, roommates, or rude library patrons. If you have trouble focusing on a work assignment and blocking out email messages and text notifications, practice ignoring them. Set a timer that lets you know when you can take a break from your task and check email and your other notifications. Work towards longer and longer blocks of focus time on your task. The more you practice ignoring distractions, the easier it will be.
If you haven’t already been convinced that you should improve your selective attention – whether it is your ability to focus in lecture, focus on the subway, or just focus on your email – there’s a lot of research on the negative effects of poor focus. For example, research on mind-wandering shows that people perform worse on tasks when they are distracted by mind-wandering (Unsworth & Robinson, 2016) and feel less confident in their responses compared to those who are not distracted (Sauer & Hope, 2016). These issues are compounded when the task you’re supposed to be focusing on is a complex task (Adler & Benbunan-Fich). Getting distracted while folding laundry has less disastrous consequences than losing focus while studying or driving a car.
For the rest of this month we’ll be exploring the topic of selective attention, or focus, and how it affects students and teachers in the classroom. We’ll also be discussing how cell phones and other devices hurt our ability to focus and what steps we can take to avoid these harmful distractions.
Adler, R. F., & Benunan-Fich, R. (2014). The effects of task difficulty and multitasking on performance. Interacting with Computers, 27(4), 430-439
Diamond, A., & Ling, D. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34-48.
Karbach, J., & Unger, K. (2014). Executive control training from middle childhood to adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 5: 390.
Karbach, J., & Verhaeghen, P. (2014). Making working memory work: A meta-analysis of executive control and working memory training in younger and older adults. Psychological Science, 25(11), 2027-2037.
Sauer, J., & Hope, L. (2016). The effects of divided attention at study and reporting procedure on regulation and monitoring for episodic recall. Acta Psychologica, 169, 143-156.
Unsworth, N., & Robinson, M. K. (2016). The influence of lapses of attention on working memory capacity. Memory & Cognition, 44, 188-196.