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.
For starters, of the fifteen simple questions we asked—such as “What color will the room be painted?”—only 18 percent got them all right. The vast majority of takers got somewhere between one-third and one-half of the questions right. And while we didn’t warn the test takers that this was a listening test, the tests were administered in a fairly unrealistic environment that should have made getting the answers right a layup. These middling results were incredibly consistent across regions of the country and income groups. Lower-income earners scored a few percentage points lower, but so did upper-class folks earning more than $250,000 per year. The difference of around 5 percent should be considered slight, however. There was only one finding large enough to peg one group as better listeners than another.
Women beat the pants off of men—at least, to a statistically significant degree.
Nationwide, women answered 66 percent correct, while men scored only 49 percent. Again, this discrepancy cut across age, income bracket, and even education.
As two men, we’d like to remind you again at this point that the test was informative but unscientific. It’s important to note, however, that men aren’t kidding themselves about this listening gender gap. After we administered the questions, we asked test takers what they thought of their own listening abilities: Men consistently indicated they were average or below-average listeners. At least there’s some self-awareness there. But men, look at it this way: If you are missing details on half of everything that’s said to you, think how easy it will be for you to improve your lot in life, to break through plateaus, simply by focusing a little more on what speakers say.
We wanted to go even deeper into this question of listening comprehension and distraction, so we partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a distraction and listening test that was designed to be painstakingly scientific. More narrow in scope, but more convincing in its results, the test conducted by professor Alessandro Acquisti and researcher Dr. Eyal Peer is remarkable, eye-opening, and hopeful. We asked a simple question: Does the mere presence of a cell phone or any other “interruptive” gadget on your body decrease your basic cognitive skills, such as comprehension?
To simulate the magnetic pull of an expected cell phone call, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test. Precisely 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects. One merely completed the test. The other two were told they “might be contacted for further instructions” via instant message. During an initial test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. Then, a second test was administered, but this time, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came. Let’s call the three groups Control, Interrupted, and On High Alert.
Remarkable finding no. 1: Both Interrupted and On High Alert groups answered correctly 20 percent less often on the first test, showing the kind of brain drain that distraction takes on our everyday tasks.
Remarkable finding no. 2: During the second test, the Control group performed equally well. But here’s the twist: Both Interrupted and On High Alert improved dramatically the second time around. Interrupted improved by 14 percent, scoring almost as well as the Control group. But even more stunning, On High Alert—which was warned but not interrupted—actually improved its results by 43 percent, far outperforming even the Control test takers. This unexpected, counterintuitive finding, which will be the subject of an upcoming paper published by Carnegie Mellon, requires further research, but Peer thinks there’s a simple explanation that could lead to some powerful, practical tips for working in a distracting environment. Participants learned from their experience, and their brains adapted.
“[The first test] may have caused participants to pay more attention and invest more cognitive resources in the second task,” he said. “[On High Alert] recruited more cognitive resources in order to overcome the expected interruption and when that did not come, they had more resources to devote to the actual task.”
In other words, warnings about, and experience with, interruptions can help people marshal more brain resources and do better, perhaps the way athletes sometime perform better when they are angry. Interruptions, it’s clear from this test, can cause a dramatic decline in ability, but they don’t have to.
We all agree distractions can have devastating consequences. Napoleon was distracted by Russia. Microsoft was distracted by the government’s antitrust lawsuit. The National Safety Council estimates that 1.6 million accidents are caused annually by cell phone use and texting while driving. And we think we’d all agree that listening and thinking are a good thing. And yet, when it comes to distractions, we are our own worst enemy. In the summer of 2011, Mother Jones magazine put a face on something all Americans have felt since the recession began in 2008: the “Great Speedup.” Companies around the country shed off millions of workers during the depth of the downturn, but workers with “survivor syndrome” picked up the slack. The end result: Productivity among US workers has skyrocketed. A generation of employees now fills what The Wall Street Journal calls “superjobs,” which are basically two people’s jobs smashed into one. Americans now work 378 hours more per year than their German counterparts. In hardly more than a decade, BlackBerrys and other smartphones have completely violated any semblance of work-life balance and work-home division. You are expected to answer an e-mail on Saturday afternoon at 3 P.M. because if you don’t, someone else at your office will.
All this productivity can really waste a lot of money. To borrow a phrase, when you’re going the wrong direction, you should at least take your foot off the gas pedal. Listening is one way to do that. Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
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- Carnegie Mellon University