Today our lives are busier than ever! Switching constantly between different screens, it appears as though our attention spans are getting thinner and thinner. So these days, what’s grabbing our attention and more so, how we divide it, is a topic of interest amongst both media and academic researchers.
To provide you with a visual example of this, the following image is a screenshot of the tabs open on my browser as I’m writing this very moment. As you can see, there’s 18 tabs and honestly I’ve been switching through them all for about the past hour!
The Oxford Dictionary defines attention as “The mental faculty of considering or taking notice of someone or something.” The problem with defining this term is that according to psychologists it’s not that simple. At any given time, there will be competing bits of sensory information that need to be understood and processed by our brains (Cherry, 2014). Our attention is ultimately a cognitive process we use to filter through and focus on these competing signals as a means of managing ourselves in an active environment (Cherry, 2014). Psychologist William James, says to think of attention as a highlighter, bringing some information to the forefront while withdrawing form other information we deem not as important at a given moment in time.
This is where things get complicated. When opinions differ about what is important or at least more amusing to the mind, our priorities in regards to what we focus on may not be aligned with others. At the same time, we may think that in order to make a mundane task, such as completing homework or an assignment, more tolerable we will multi-task. Take myself as an example, while writing this blog post, I clearly (form the image above) am logged into Facebook and on my phone beside me I do have Instagram opened. To be honest, I also have the TV on in the background. Here I am with all these sources of information switched on and I have to choose what to pay attention to most!
But this is what multitasking is for right? Dividing our attention in order to give us the ability to complete multiple tasks at once.
Well debates have risen speculating about the effectiveness of multitasking, arguing that through juggling these many screens, texts, real-world conversations, and funny cat videos, we’re feeling more distracted than focused. Research carried out by cognitive scientist Clifford Nass, considers how people, particularly students, can carry out “heavy-duty, multi window multitasking,” particularly when psychological history states that it is impossible to be equally focused on two things at once (Keim, 2012). His research was carried out on students whose cognitive processes were measured while completing one solo task. Results surprisingly revealed that students who considered themselves highly active multi-taskers had difficulty distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information (Keim, 2012).
Nass’ results found that high multi-taskers had poor mental organisation. In subsequent studies, Nass discovered that 20% of students at Stanford University regularly engaged with 6 or more streams of media at any one time, while less than 5% only focused on one stream (Nass, 2010). Nass argues that the high traffic and hypertext of the internet is facilitating this multitasking behaviour in those who are logged on most. The heavy media multi-taskers Nass has observed, were found to struggle with maintaining short term memory. Meaning they were able to understand information they were simultaneously consuming, however when it came to recalling it, the task proved too difficult. Nass puts this finding forward as evidence that heavy media multitasking crowds the mind with information, making it more difficult for media professionals such as journalists to capture and maintain their audience’s attention (Nass, 2010).
An important stakeholder for Nass’ media multitasking research is the Nieman Foundation. A collaborative education initiative in association with Harvard University, which provides selected tertiary students from 93 countries worldwide to attend Harvard for one year and study journalism. The students involved are taught how to cope in the competitive field of journalism, but today there is more competition. Journalists are not only competing for stories, coverage and job positions, but they’re competing for our attention. Which is why research like Nass’ is so important.
In a 2010 article for the Nieman foundation’s quarterly publication and website Nieman Reports, Nass wrote of his research as evidence for his advice to journalists on how to approach their role in the media-heavy and multi tasked digital era we find ourselves in (Nass, 2010).
“Journalists are adapting—with varying
degrees of frustration and consternation—
to the unwiliingness of the growing
number of media muititaskers to focus on
one stream of content, regardless of how
engaging it might be…. the longer the
article, the greater the frequency readers
show of bouncing around and eventually
drifting to other media streams.” – Clifford Nass
Ultimately research such as this is invaluable in allowing professionals such as journalists to attempt to adapt to the current digital landscape and how to face the challenge of trying to grasp our attention.
Hopefully I’ve managed to keep yours!
Thanks for reading,
Nass, C 2010, ‘Thinking About Multitasking: It’s What Journalists Need to Do,’ Nieman Reports, pp 11-12,
Keim, B 2012, ‘Is multitasking bad for us?’ NOVA ScienceNOW, <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/is-multitasking-bad.html>