# Some people are more distractible than others … sometimes, that is

Take a look at this quick movie. You’ll be shown a “ready” screen, followed by a quick flash of eight letters arranged in a circle. Your job is to spot either a “Z” or a “K” in that circle of letters, while ignoring other letters appearing outside of the circle.

You’ll see two different circles of letters in the movie. Each circle will either contain a Z or a K. Again, ignore the letters appearing outside of the circle. Go ahead, give it a shot.

Just watch the video once! What order did you see the Z and the K in? Let’s make this a poll.

I don’t expect that we’ll uncover all the nuances of this phenomenon in such a short demonstration, but I think it’s quite probable that most viewers will have correctly identified the letter in the second circle, where the other letters were all “O”. That makes sense — there are fewer distractors, so the problem is easier.

Sophie Forster and Nilli Lavie showed hundreds similar movies to 61 volunteers. As in our demonstration, there were two types of displays. Displays like the first one in our example, where the target letter was displayed next to many different, similarly shaped letters, are clearly more difficult. These are called “high load” displays because they require more perceptual resources to process. Displays like the second one in our demo are called “low load.” Again, as in our demo, viewers were looking for one of two possible letters.

As expected, viewers responded significantly slower and made more errors with high-load displays than with low-load displays. But that wasn’t the question Forster and Lavie were interested in. What they wanted to know is how different types of people responded to the different displays.

In previous research, Lavie and others had found that some people are more distractible than others. The trait can be measured with a simple questionnaire asking questions like “how often do you start doing one thing and then get distracted by something else,” and “how often do you accidentally throw away something you want and keep what you meant to throw away (like throwing a full box of matches in the trash and putting the ember in your pocket).” High scores on this measure (called the the CFQ) are associated with higher car-accident rates and accidents at work.

You might expect that people with high CFQs would do poorly on tests like the one in the movie. You’d be right — but only partly right. Their results were different in a critical way based not just on the letters in the circle with the target letter, but the distractor letter outside the circle. When that letter was the same as the target letter, everyone was faster and more accurate. But there was a key difference, summarized in this graph:

In the simpler (low-load) task, with only one distractor, the distractor was significantly more distracting to people with high CFQs. But in a high-load task, CFQ made no difference, and the distractor affected everyone equally.

So everyone benefits from having fewer distractions, but more distractible people don’t benefit as much. So it may be the case that when taking a test in a quiet room, highly distractible people are going to be more adversely affected by something like a barely-audible conversation in the hallway. If there are lots of distractions, like in a noisy coffee shop, everyone will be affected roughly equally. This might explain why, in college, I preferred to study in noisy coffee shops, while Greta favored studying in the quietest library on campus.

Sophie Forster, Nilli Lavie (2007). High Perceptual Load Makes Everybody Equal: Eliminating Individual Differences in Distractibility With Load Psychological Science, 18 (5), 377-381 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01908.x

1. #1 Becca
November 3, 2008

First time through I didn’t even see the key letter in the second circle! I’m not really so sure that test measures what you think it measures (since the second one was harder for me).

2. #2 reg
November 3, 2008

The order the tasks are presented in is surely a huge issue here. For the first task I had no idea what I was going to be presented with – circle diameter, letter size, where exactly these mysterious letters outside the circle were going to be. Knowing all that automatically made the second task easier.

3. #3 Meghan
November 3, 2008

I wonder if the placement of your distractors is an issue here. I saw the letter in the first circle right away, mostly because of where my eyes happened to be, I think. In the second circle, the same letter was the distractor, but it was near the same place as the letter in the first circle. I knew that that letter *wasn’t* in the second circle, so I was able to guess the right answer without actually seeing the correct letter. In fact, even watching it multiple times, it’s hard for me to see the second letter that’s actually in the circle.

4. #4 Skrud
November 3, 2008

I saw both the K and the Z in both flashes. When I voted “K, Z”, I thought that meant I was voting for both letters … but apparently you only expected me to see one or the other in each flash.

5. #5 Paul Murray
November 4, 2008

When I want to read something that I have to concentrate on (eg, documentation for the Oracle XML apis), I print it out and head to the food hall at the mall.

6. #6 Chris OSullivan
November 4, 2008

The first circle I see nothing and the second, maybe a hint just before it ends. This in many viewings

7. #7 Ann
November 4, 2008

Sorry to wander from the subject a bit,but reading the comments I’m wondering,why is it that some people seem to see at different “speeds” to others.I managed to spot both letters,first time.It’s also happened before that I have clearly seen and read so-called “subliminal messages” when they flashed on a screen,while the people I was watching with said they didn’t notice anything.Is there actually any physiological difference,and if so,where?

8. #8 Nigel
November 4, 2008

Well, I saw the K in the first circle right away (I assumed because I was primed for it). The distractor Z outside the circle didn’t register at all and I couldn’t tell what any of the other letters in the circle were. However, in the second display I initially saw only the distractor K (though I knew it was a distractor) and Os in the circle. It took 3 tries before I saw the Z. By that time, I was no longer so clearly seeing the K in the first because I was seeing bits and pieces of other letters like Y, but I still did not see the distractor Z in the first display until after I had read the explanation and went back to look for it.

I wonder if this could have something to do with the side at which the distractor and target are placed. As we read from upper left to lower right, perhaps I just started to scan the display that way. That would explain why I easily saw the target towards the left and missed the distractor on the right in the first display, and why I saw the distractor on the left but not the target on the lower right in the second. (Of course, in a real experiment you would control for this sort of thing by using lots of different arrangements.)

I am not sure what my CFQ might be, but I suspect I am pretty distractible. I prefer to study in the quiet, but I can manage in a noisy cacophony like a coffee bar also. What will very much distract me, however, is anything rhythmic (especially music) or talk I can potentially overhear and follow. I just cannot understand how some people (including my own kids, but also some of my peers when I was growing up) can study with music on, or in front of the TV. That would totally destroy my concentration.

9. #9 Dave Munger
November 4, 2008

Wow, people are pretty accurate. I’m going to change the instructions to see if that affects the results. Here are the results so far.

10. #10 Paul
November 4, 2008

Well, I’m sure I’m easily distracted, but things moved so fast that all I saw was a blur of a circle and a clear letter outside of it. Since I saw the letter outside very clearly, I had a pretty good guess that the one inside would be opposite, but I couldn’t be sure, so I was honest and responded that way. The video seemed to move really fast, though. Would it have been slower over a slower internet connection or slower computer (I’m at work with huge bandwidth, a fast computer, and its 7:15 am so there is no competition for bandwidth)? Or maybe I’m just slow…

November 4, 2008

Interesting choice of color- black and white.

Whenever I look at anyt black and white video, quickly, I use a little trick to help my memory. I blink.

For some reason, when I blink, I am able to see what I just saw moments later with my eyes closed. Like a ghost image in the dark. I did that with the test without even realizing I’d done it after.

Does this work for all colors? Would it work for non-video demonstrations?

This trick doesn’t work as well for me with printed material.

12. #12 DaveM
November 4, 2008

I was looking for letters “inside” the circle, not actually part of the circle. I did pickup the distracting letters quite clearly. My job is heavily multi-tasked as I have to report to more than 1 individual throughout the day. I need to be able to change tasks at a moments notice and then return to my old task when ready. Does that make me more distracted? I can definitely get lost in a book and not even hear the phone ring. I’ve only been in 4 accidents (fender benders) and only 1 was my fault.

13. #13 Therapy
November 5, 2008

The first time I saw the video I couldnt make out the second circle. Second time around I made it out. Black and white can be very tricky and only on close observation without assumption of the position of the alphabets is it possible to get it right!!

14. #14 Elliott Grasett
November 5, 2008

I had to pick “not sure” because you did not offer “none of the above” Failed to see a letter within either circle.

15. #15 Rachael Craig
November 5, 2008

Like Elliot above, I also failed to see any of the letters within either circle. Well, it’s not like I didn’t already know that I have a “jumpy” absent-minded type brain. ðŸ™‚

16. #16 christopher
November 5, 2008

the options of the multiple choice helped me be correct. i didn’t see the k in the first circle (was distracted by the z outside), but did see the z in the second. since the only option that covered that was choice 1, i went with that – but had there been a “nothing first, z second” option, i would have chosen that.

17. #17 Mohit
November 6, 2008

i don’t know why but I caught “Z” on the right side and “k” on the left side on the first go itself….the only thing wrong about it was that i thought that the letter “K” in the second flash was encircled, which as it turns out it wasn’t…….

i also believe that gestalt’s law of proximity is at work here, since in both the cases a single word was placed at a distance with regard to a cluster of words, And since it is much easier to read a single word in such a short time, eyes catch that word instead of some other word from the cluster……

And also may be when I saw the second flash my eyes caught two important things there: one “circles” and second “the letter K” and may be that’s why i thought that K was circled…….

18. #18 Qalmlea
November 7, 2008

I saw both letters immediately in each flash, but I had to go back and reread to figure out which was the one of interest in each case. FWIW, I had a visual memory of each that was more or less an ordered pair (K,Z) with a note as to whether the circle went with the right or the left member of the pair. Having the letters spatially oriented the same in both illustrations (i.e. the K is left of the Z) made it much easier for me to process, and so might be affecting the results.

19. #19 Amy
November 15, 2008

I can see the letters outside the circles quite plainly. I can’t see anything inside either circle, though, and I’ve looked at the flash repeatedly. That’s a little freaky. Is there really something there?

20. #20 Ryan Flaherty
June 25, 2009

It distracted me

21. #21 Ryan Flaherty
June 25, 2009

It distracted me