I love finals season. Distressed students juggling several enriching projects and exams crammed into unrealistic time frames, friends disappearing into their rooms and favorite study spots, and my GPA on the verge of collapse. What accentuates the stress and pressure associated with this period, especially for me, are the many distractions that exist regardless of my physical location. In the seclusion of my dorm, I am surrounded by tech and the comfort of my bed (memory foam toppers are the truth). In Mercer, my college’s psychology building, friends constantly pass by, and despite my introversion, I can’t help but entertain them. After convincing them to join me for sushi next door and neglecting my academic obligations through small talk and stress-eating, my cycle of socializing and procrastination continues. Welcome to the wonderful world of anxiety, identity crisis, and hopping majors without doing your research.
Why are we so easy to distract? There are several theories about how attention functions. As any psychology enthusiast knows, there is rarely a single comprehensive model or explanation for a specific condition or phenomenon. It is especially important to consider multiple perspectives when discussing attention. Broadbent’s filter model, directing one’s attention to a particular thing impairs their ability to notice other stimuli since irrelevant information is being actively filtered out. The capacity model devised by Kahneman challenges the filter model by proposing that one is only able to pay attention to a certain number of stimuli at any given time, as they do not possess enough cognitive resources to detect everything in their external environment. Regardless of which model explains attention more accurately, there are clearly limitations with attention. However, research on attention suggests that there are few limitations to the types of stimuli that grab our attention.
For example, the strength of attentional biases has been found to correlate with one’s emotional state. Research conducted by Bradley et al. in 1999 focused on patients with General Anxiety Disorder, analyzing specific attentional biases. Participants were shown faces displaying happy, neutral, or threatening facial expressions, and were subsequently tested to see how quickly they could identify each emotion. Their results showed a significantly slower reaction time to recognize threatening expressions when compared to the happy and neutral face conditions. They concluded that patients with GAD experience attentional biases in tasks such as expression recognition.
The famous Stroop Effect has been used in many applications, the most common example involving text color and word identification. Participants are often presented with the written form of a color printed in a font of a different color and asked to say what color the word is written in. Findings show that it is challenging for participants to not instinctively read the word instead (Cherry 2019). Given that an attentional bias varies depending on emotional affiliations (as seen in the Bradley study), it is to be expected that participants would be likely to identify the colors of emotionally neutral words quicker than emotionally charged. The theme reoccurs that more attention would be required to process and understand more complex, emotionally charged words.
These models and research merely scratch the surface of understanding our multifaceted capabilities of attention. The big takeaway is that attentional bias is a crucial component in understanding how our brains utilize cognitive faculties to attend to various stimuli. Despite being difficult to ignore or overcome the effects that this bias has on us, it can be used to analyze, refine, or correct attention-based habits and management techniques used by people with specific psychological conditions or circumstances.
Attentional Bias/Stroop Effect: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-attentional-bias-2795027
Basic overview of attention: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attention-2795009
Broadbent’s Filter Model https://www.simplypsychology.org/attention-models.html
How the Attentional Bias Influences the Decisions We Make (Cherry 2019)