DIGITAL DISTRACTION: The authors’ research adds to a growing body of work that suggests attention is becoming an increasingly rare commodity, thanks to the proliferation of gadgets, not to mention people, vying for our limited time. Image: From The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success © 2013 by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson. Published by Dutton, a Member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
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Editor's note: This excerpt of a chapter from The Plateau Effect describes a study that authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson conducted with Carnegie Mellon University into the nature of “digital distractions.” Listeners in general are terrible at comprehension, but the authors found that the mere possibility that one’s phone may ring diminishes a person’s cognition skills up to 20 percent. The authors’ research adds to a growing body of work that suggests attention is becoming an increasingly rare commodity, thanks to the proliferation of gadgets, not to mention people, vying for our limited time.
From The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success © 2013 by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson. Published by Dutton, a Member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.
Ralph Nichols, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, had a haunting feeling: His students weren’t listening. So he did what any good researcher would do: He studied students’ listening skills.
It was a simple test. With the help of school teachers in Minnesota, he had teachers stop what they were doing in midclass and ask kids to describe what the teachers were talking about.
You might imagine that wiggly, distracted first-graders had the toughest time with the test. That’s precisely why you need to read on. Yes, turn off the TV and read on.
Surprisingly, 90 percent of first- and second-graders gave the right answer. But as kids got older, results plummeted. By junior high, only 44 percent answered correctly; about one in four high school kids succeeded. Clearly, they had better things to think about.
The truth is, the older people get, the more their listening comprehension sinks. Making matters worse, studies show that people wildly overestimate how good they are at listening. Now, do I have your attention?
Plenty of studies examine this phenomenon. While listening is the core of most of our communications—the average adult listens nearly twice as much as he or she talks—most people stink at it. Here’s one typical result. Test takers were asked to sit through a ten-minute oral presentation and, later, to describe its content. Half of adults can’t do it even moments after the talk, and forty-eight hours later, fully 75 percent of listeners can’t recall the subject matter.
Here’s the problem: The human brain has the capacity to digest as much as 400 words per minute of information. But even a speaker from New York City talks at around 125 words per minute. That means three-quarters of your brain could very well be doing something else while someone is speaking to you.
This helps explain why little children are—or can be, anyway—better listeners than adults. Their brains are less developed, so they are much more likely to be completely engrossed in a topic. Adults, with all that extra brain power, are much more easily distracted.
The risk should be obvious. You might start out with all intention of focusing on your boss, or the useless sales presentation, or your spouse’s frustrating work story. But soon, you hear a squirrel in the trees outside. You notice that the woman across the room has colored her hair. You see a tile on the floor that is cracked. You are tempted by the false god of multitasking. And you are lost.
All these missteps have various consequences: from a missed work assignment, to nothing at all, to a night sleeping on the couch.
By now, we hope you see the problem. Your brain is hungry for information, like a golden retriever puppy is hungry to chase a tennis ball. Important information, however, rarely comes as fast as your brain can take it, just as you can never toss the ball fast enough for your puppy. At the dog park, your baby Fido won’t be able to resist if someone else nearby throws a ball…off he bounds, chasing after whatever is moving. And your brain, thirsty for data, with a whole bunch of seemingly spare time on its hands, can’t resist the ping of a text message or the temptation of looking at YouTube videos of cats.
As a dog owner, you have two choices. Keep tossing the ball faster and faster and try to keep your pet at full stimulation at all times, or train you dog to shut out distractions and focus only on you. While entire TV shows are devoted to such crucial dog grooming, there is very little to help you with brain grooming. In fact, there’s very little research into the real-life consequences of distraction and poor listening skills. So we decided to try some.