Binary classifications for mental disorders, dispositions and identities are about as cool as sateen going-out tanks and Snackwell’s brownies. Instead, we’ve seen a theoretical and diagnostic shift toward spectrums — for autism, sociopathy, gender identity and the brain’s “sex,” to name a few. That’s not to say the spectrum framework is new, but rather that more people are rejecting the notion that they either have a condition or they don’t, that they are one way or they aren’t.
It may be time to add distractibility to that list, according to a new study, published in the journal Psychological Science. Psychologists at the University of Sussex sought to see whether proneness to attention lapses — deemed an “attention-distractibility trait — is a quality that all people possess to varying degrees. In other words, they hypothesized that we all fall somewhere on the ADD spectrum, those with formal ADHD diagnoses lying at one, clinical end of the attention deficit spectrum.
In the study, per a press release, 174 adults completed computerized tasks designed to measure distractibility. The tasks were similar to grade-school word searches. Participants had to locate a specific letter hidden in a block of letters, and press a button when they found it. Twenty-five percent of the time, a cartoon character — intended as a distraction — appeared on the screen, either above or below the letters. As a measure of distractibility, researchers looked at how much slower participants completed the task when the cartoon image was on the screen. Participants also filled out self-assessments of ADHD symptoms exhibited during childhood.
Researchers then compared “scores” for ADHD symptoms and distractibility against each other, and found a consistent link. Participants who, as kids, really struggled with the long aspect of long division similarly struggled to find target letters when the cartoon images sauntered onto their screens.
The fact that childhood ADHD symptoms predicted focusing difficulty down the road suggested that “distractibility is a trait that is present already in childhood and predisposes people to attention lapses during adulthood, as well,” said study author Nili Levie in a press release.
Some of the letter-search tasks varied in difficulty, and participants consistently withstood distractions more successfully when the letters were harder to spot, regardless of where they fell on the distractibility spectrum. Making tasks more challenging, according to researchers, may be an effective strategy for boosting focus, and consequently performance.
But, researchers say we shouldn’t think of distractibility as relevant only in obvious contexts, such as during standardized tests.
“Attention serves as the gateway to all information processing,” said Lavie in the press release. “A high level of the attention-distractibility trait is likely to have an impact on a person’s educational and job performance, as well on their ability to focus on daily activities and tasks, such as reading.”
Distractibility may be a trait that we’ll come to recognize as a factor in general well-being. And, if you made it through the last sentence of this post without clicking on that tantalizing list of “Celebrities With Terrible Hygiene,” link, well, you deserve a gold star.