Are some people more easily distracted than others? Two researchers (Forester and Lavie, 2014) ran experiments to try and find out.
Generally speaking, there are two types of distractions: external and internal. External distractions are things like message alerts, people, phone calls, and other distractions caused by external stimuli. Internal distractions are stray thoughts that break our attention or create a mental state in which it’s hard to focus on whatever it is we should be focusing on. A stray thought can be anything from wanting to check sports scores to remembering a highly important personal task that needs to get done as soon as possible. Stray thoughts can easily lead to procrastination, too. Forester and Lavie wanted to know if people who were prone to external distractions were more or less prone to internal distractions.
It’s pretty easy to measure whether and how someone gets thrown off course when they are distracted by external stimuli. You can set up an experiment in which subjects do tasks until they are interrupted by a planned distraction, whether it’s a phone call or a researcher talking to them. Internal distractions are harder to measure, but Forester and Lavie came up with a way to do it.
They used a computer-based test that measures one’s ability to focus and adding into it pictures of cartoons, like Donald Duck and SpongeBob Squarepants. If a subject is doing a computer test and starts seeing cartoon characters pop up on screen, how do they handle it? Are they able to continue focusing on the task as they were before, or does their mind start to think about the characters or question their purpose in the experiment?
At the end, the subjects answer a bunch of questions about the experiment, like how familiar they were with the cartoon characters who appeared. A year later, they were invited back to the lab to repeat the test.
Without getting into all the details of the experiment itself, the interesting thing that the researchers found is a correlation between the two types of distractions. People who were prone to letting their minds wander when distracted by the cartoon characters were also more likely to be distracted by external forces.
“Individuals prone to off-task mind wandering also appear more likely to be distracted by task-irrelevant stimuli in the external environment.”
What we don’t know is the reason behind people’s varying degrees of susceptibility to distraction. could be that people are either likely or unlikely to be distracted as a result of their personality. It might also be the case that people who have learned skills for focusing despite external distractions also have strong skills for preventing their minds from wandering.
Forester, S. & Lavie, N. (2014). Distracted by Your Mind? Individual Differences in Distractibility Predict Mind Wandering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 40(1): 251-260.
Image by Philip Bump, CC.