Distraction’s Cognitive Risks Are Worse Than the Time It Wastes

New research finds that being interrupted during a fixed task distorts and misconstrues how we view reality.
people in an open plan office
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Turns out all that texting, emailing, Instagramming, Netflixing, Bumbling, and engaging in other extremely necessary parts of our days may be more damaging beyond distracting us from what we’re supposed to be doing. New research from the University of Ohio found that distractions distort and misconstrue how we view reality, showing there are very real consequences for when our focus is interrupted. The study, which was published today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, also found that most people aren’t even aware that distractions meddle with how they see the world. In fact, they’re quite confident in whatever it is they think they saw.


In the study, a group of people were asked to focus on a specific one of four different-colored squares shown to them on a computer screen. A bright image then sporadically popped up on the screen, interrupting the participants from their task. After, the participants were asked to recount the colors of the squares they were instructed to focus on. The bulk of the participants got tripped up, confusing the colors of the "right" square with the colors of the image intended to distract them.

The study suggests blips in our attention confuse us about the details of tasks we’re supposed to be doing and the details of unrelated distractions to those tasks. According to this model, people constantly mix them up, adding to the bulk of evidence that the more attentive we are, the better we’ll process and remember things.

“It raises an interesting consequence for memory—could it be that, if distraction happens with the right timing, you might adopt elements from the distraction into the thing you think you remember? Could it mean that some of our memory errors might be because we perceived something wrong in the first place?” said the study's lead author, Jiageng Chen, a graduate student researcher with Ohio State’s Vision and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, in a statement.

This adds to the growing body of research communicating that our brains aren’t always totally honest with us. Past research has found that the brain oftentimes tries to piece together bits of info to tell itself a story and find meaning, causing even those with phenomenal memories to create false memories of past experiences. This happens all the time, including in cases of crimes or accidents where victims or witnesses aren’t able to accurately recall key details of what went down. Memories fade over time and are rewritten just about every time we revisit them, making many of us question what our own reality even is. Life is just one big mind trick. Even if it is all a ruse, at least you’ll be able to Instagram it.

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