Earlier this year, European carmaker Skoda debuted a social media campaign in the UK to support the national launch of the new Skoda Fabia. Watch the ad carefully:
Did the new Skoda Fabia steal your attention? Skoda’s marketing team hoped you’d answered yes.
While undoubtedly a clever ad, Skoda’s attention test is nothing new. For many years, cognitive scientists (and marketers) have been experimenting with ‘sustained inattentional blindness’, a striking phenomenon in which people fail to notice stimuli appearing in front of their eyes when they are preoccupied with an attentionally demanding task (Mack & Rock 1998, cited in Most et al. 2005, p.217). Capitalising on our attention deficits, hundreds of brain-training apps have exploded onto the market, claiming to improve our attention spans and build up our ‘mental muscle’.
Eager to design and implement my own attention test, I initiated a small-scale collaborative ethnographic project with my Mum and Dad as fellow consultants. My Dad was particularly interested in investigating the idea of multitasking (also referred to as “continuous partial attention”), with the intent of determining whether the constant flow of incoming emails at work impacts his attention, and thus, productivity. I related strongly to this issue, as I have found messaging family, friends and even assignment group members to be a distraction during university lectures.
In order to investigate these ideas, my parents and I decided to stimulate a multitasking situation where Dad and I would task-switch between watching a video and instant messaging with each other. Afterwards, Mum would test us separately on what we remembered from the video. We would then compare, evaluate and interpret the results.
We decided to watch a five-minute segment of The Wonderful World of Cats – HD Nature Wildlife Documentary on YouTube. It was important that the video was of interest to both of us, otherwise we would be more inclined to tune out and focus solely on messaging. We also decided to watch the video in different rooms in order to mimic real-life situations in which the people messaging are separated by distance.
It turned out that neither Dad or I could recall many specific details about the video. Although we were both interested in learning about the fascinating world of cats, our dominant interest at the time was vested in the information we were communicating – Dad wanted to know what was happening in the football and I wanted his opinion on how I could generate more Facebook exposure for an assignment.
On the other hand, Mum could recall very detailed accounts of the video. Interestingly, Mum’s attention was also influenced by her interests. For example, Mum eagerly recalled seeing Snoopy, one of her favourite cartoon characters, in the background of one frame. This reinforces the idea that we are likely to pay attention to information that pertains to our current motives and personal interests (Verderber, Verderber & Sellnow 2010, p.24).
Mum’s excellent recollection is also due to the fact that she was actively note-taking throughout the video in order to test Dad and I. This supports research findings that reveal the exam scores of students who text in class are significantly lower than the exam scores of students who do not text in class (Dietz & Henrich 2014; Ellis, Daniels & Jauregui 2010; Kuznekoff, Munz & Titsworth 2015; National Communication Association 2012). Multitasking is, thus, considered a distraction that is likely to result in lower grade performance (Dietz & Henrich 2014; Ellis, Daniels & Jauregui 2010; Kuznekoff, Munz & Titsworth 2015; National Communication Association 2012). In work contexts, multitasking has also been found to reduce productivity, quality of work and efficiency (Kleiman 2013). One study even claims that multitasking can damage your career.
While these studies validate each other’s findings, pointing to the general consensus that multitasking has negative consequences, they do not give a complete, accurate and contextual picture of people’s attention capacities. For example, studies into the way students multitask in learning environments should extend their focus beyond how students multitask and the effects of this attention-splitting on their performance to a more holistic approach investigating why students do not pay full attention in class. Is the lecture content boring? Does the lecturer engage with students? Do students pay more attention at the beginning of session than the end? Are students preoccupied with other matters, such as planning how to get home or what to cook for dinner? There are a variety of influences impacting student’s ability and/or desire to pay attention. These factors cannot be gauged in the likes of Microsoft and Google’s visually appealing quantitative charts and certainly should not be overlooked in audience research.
After conducting the experiment, I showed my Dad a research study that found typical office workers only get 11 continuous minutes to work on a task before interruption (Sullivan 2013). According to the study, working with interruptions has costs: people in interrupted conditions experienced higher stress, frustration and pressure (Mark, Gudith & Klocke 2008, p.110). Asking Dad how he felt about multitasking, Dad replied “Multitasking helps me assess and prioritise. I like to action things as soon as I receive them. I also like variety. I don’t even realise I’m doing it.” For Dad, the value of this experiment in improving his own understanding of his work practices had suddenly become clear.
Yet Dad’s response has also raised a number of pertinent questions – are studies into the effects of multitasking biased to reveal only negative effects, fuelling another moral panic about the loss of ‘skills of concentration’? Are there in fact positive effects of multitasking?
Both public and private sectors should not underestimate the value inherent in people’s individual experiences to understand why attention is captured, retained or lost, or why people multitask, if they are even aware they do. After all, if the scarcest commodity in our economy is now human attention, then why aren’t we paying attention to these stories?
Dietz, S & Henrich, C 2014, ‘Texting as a distraction to learning in college students’, Computers in Human Behaviour, vol.36, p.163-167.
Ellis, Y, Daniels, B & Jauregui, A 2010, ‘The Effects of Multitasking on the Grade Performance of Business Students’, Research in Higher Education Journal, vol.8, p.1-10.
Kleiman, J 2013, ‘How Multitasking Hurts Your Brand (and Your Effectiveness at Work’, Forbes, 15 January, accessed 19 September 2015, <http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2013/01/15/how-multitasking-hurts-your-brain-and-your-effectiveness-at-work/>.
Kuznekoff, JH, Munz, S & Timsworth, S 2015, ‘Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter, and Message Content on Student Learning’, Communication Education, vol.64, no.3, p.344-365.
Mark, G, Gudith, D & Kloche, U 2008, ‘The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress’, in CHI 2008 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Florence, Italy, 5-10 April, accessed 19 September 2015, <https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf>.
Most, SB, Scholl, BJ, Clifford, ER & Simons, DJ 2005, ‘What You See Is What You Set: Sustained Inattentional Blindness and the Capture of Awareness’, Psychological Review, vol.112, no.1, p.217-242.
National Communication Association 2012, ‘Text messaging in class may affect college students’ learning’, ScienceDaily, accessed 19 September 2015, <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120404101822.htm>.
Sullivan, B 2013, ‘Students can’t resist distraction for two minutes..and neither can you’, NBC News, 18 May, accessed 19 September 2015, <http://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/students-cant-resist-distraction-two-minutes-neither-can-you-f1C9984270>.
Verderber, RF, Verderber, KS & Sellnow, DD 2010, Communicate!, Thirteenth Edition, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Boston.