Tracking the Temporal Dynamics of Distraction in a Continuous Performance Task

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Blumberg, Michelle
Attentional capture , Irrelevant distraction , Perceptual load
Many daily life tasks require sustained attention (e.g., studying) and are impacted by distractions that are irrelevant to the current task (e.g., friends talking). However, distraction paradigms typically fail to capture the continuous aspect of tasks, and commonly use distractors that are not actually irrelevant to current task goals. Hence, the aim of the present thesis was to provide a measure of distraction that better reflects daily life inattention. In Experiment 1, I tested my novel distraction task, referred to as the Continuous Classification Task, to determine whether previous findings of distraction replicate. Participants proceeded clockwise through a 12-item circular array making forced-choice responses as to whether the identity of each item was a letter or a digit. On thirty percent of the trials, a colorful cartoon character was presented in the center of the display. As predicted, there was significant distractor interference for the first response following distractor presentation. In Experiment 2, using an online version of the Continuous Classification Task, I tested its validity by correlating performance with scores on the Childhood and Current ADHD symptoms scales and the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire. As with Experiment 1, I found significant interference, however, here the interference was present for multiple items following distractor presentation. Furthermore, individuals who scored higher on measures of inattention also experienced greater distraction in my task supporting the external validity of the Continuous Classification Task. Finally, with Experiment 3, I examined the impact of perceptual load on distraction within my task. In a low-load condition, participants discriminated between visibly distinct items (i.e., c and o vs. i and l), whereas in a high-load condition, participants discriminated between visibly similar items (i.e., d and b vs. q and p). As with Experiment 2, I found distraction for multiple items following distractor presentation. However, inconsistent with Load Theory (Lavie & Tsal, 1994), increasing perceptual load increased distraction, suggesting that perceptual load may impact distraction differently in the continuous tasks that are typical of daily life. Together, these findings support the use of my Continuous Classification Task for investigating inattention in daily life.
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