How Distraction Might Sap Your Concern for the World

What percentage of the information you encounter during a given day do you give your full attention to? Given the sheer abundance of distractions these days, the answer is probably pretty low. To psychology researchers, the question of what we “do” with information we process — but just barely — has always been an interesting one, since it can help shed light on the complicated, not-always-rational ways our brains try to sort through the tidal wave of stimuli they encounter every hour of every day.

A new study in Cognition lead-authored by Elizabeth Levy Paluck, a social psychologist at Princeton University, offers some interesting new insights into the potential effects of all this distracted information consumption. Paluck and colleagues Eldar Shafir and Sherry Jueyu Wu used a very clever set of manipulations to expose their student participants to a television program or online promotional video about famine in Niger, but in a manner in which some of them would be distracted while the video played. Some students, for example, were told they could complete a brief task on a laptop while they waited in a room where the video happened to be playing, or they could complete the task at the end of the study — meaning the whole study would take them more time, overall. Most of the students, fastidious as they were, decided to be more efficient by completing the task while they waited.

Over the course of several experiments, some students were exposed to the videos without distraction, some with distraction, and some weren’t exposed to the videos at all. The students were also given surveys designed to gauge their level of concern with the issues raised in the videos. As it turned out, those who were distracted, or who consciously chose to skip the video when they were given that opportunity, “all assigned lower importance to poverty and to hunger reduction compared to participants who watched with no distraction or opportunity to skip the program, or to those who did not watch at all.”

The theory here is that “people infer from their choice to ignore [something] that they care less about the issue.” In other words, some part of our brain says to us, You didn’t pay attention to that thing, so it must not be important. This isn’t rational, of course — oftentimes we’re distracted from important things by unimportant things. But our brains aren’t built to be rational; they’re built to sift a tremendous amount of information in as efficient and survival-and-reproduction-friendly a manner as possible.

It’s difficult to extrapolate from a lab experiment to the real world, but these findings suggest that our current, distraction-soaked environment might suppress our concern for certain issues. “Bombarding individuals with emotionally charged television footage had no consistent impact on their emotional state, nor, most importantly, on how much they cared about the issue,” write Paluck and her colleagues. The students who paid attention to the video weren’t particularly moved by it, in other words, and overall the researchers “found it difficult to increase the perceived importance of hunger and poverty, and easier to diminish it.” Another mark in favor of the “awareness is overrated” thesis.

How Distraction Might Sap Your Concern for the World