How distractible are you? The answer may lie in your working memory capacity

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen I'm writing a post for Cognitive Daily (or doing almost any kind of writing, for that matter), I try to keep outside distractions to an absolute minimum. I even have an application on my computer that shuts off all access to the internet for a specified period of time. I find most music distracting, but sometimes I'll play a Mozart piano concerto, which seems to help focus my attention (see here for a possible explanation).

Some people, however, seem to be able to be incredibly productive despite a huge number of distractions -- Twitter status updates, email, crying babies, you name it. Indeed, some people can't work well if things are too quiet. For them, uninterrupted silence is more distracting than cacophony.

But whatever their working environment, it's clear that some people are simply better at focusing on the task at hand. What makes people's minds more or less likely to wander? Several studies point to working memory capacity as the key. While on average people can keep about 6 or 7 words or numbers in memory, capacity varies from individual to individual. People with higher working memory capacity tend to do better on tasks like the sustained attention to response task (SART) which demand focused attention to a task. We discuss the SART in more detail here, with a video example.

Working memory might seem unrelated to such a simple task as SART: Usually you're asked to do something like respond only to words NOT beginning with the letter "P", while dozens of words flash by and only the occasional "P" word. You've only got to focus on one thought at a time -- why should it matter whether your working memory capacity is 5 or 8?

Jennifer McVay and Michael Kane believe it's because having a larger working memory capacity means you're better able to focus on the task at hand. To confirm their hunch, they tested hundreds of students on both working memory size and their ability to do the SART task (they used several different rules, but we'll focus on the task where viewers had to respond when a word was in lowercase, but not when it was in ALL CAPS -- which only occurred about 10 percent of the time). There was one additional twist to their study. After some of the key all-caps words appeared (and the students either incorrectly pressed the space bar, or correctly resisted), the students were asked what they had been thinking about during the task:

  • The task itself
  • How well they were doing on the task
  • Their daily life
  • Their current state of being (hungry? tired?)
  • Worries, concerns, or fears
  • Daydreams
  • Other

The SART test was given in four blocks of 450 words, of which 50 were in all caps. As you might expect, thoughts tended to wander as the experiment progressed:


Thoughts unrelated to the task increased dramatically by the end of the study, while task-related thoughts declined. Thinking unrelated thoughts correlated significantly (r = .368) with poor performance on the task. And unrelated thoughts were negatively correlated with working memory capacity (r = -.217).

So having a low working memory capacity is associated with increased tendency for your thoughts to wander. And as in previous studies, it's also correlated with poorer performance on the task. McVay and Kane say this means having a large working memory capacity results in a better ability to focus your thoughts, thus avoiding distracting thoughts and staying on-task.

This isn't to say that having unrelated thoughts makes the task impossible -- despite thinking unrelated thoughts, respondents still made the correct response 42 percent of the time. While they were focused on the task, the students made an incorrect response 34 percent of the time, so other factors were involved. But a high working memory capacity and keeping focused on the task were the most reliable predictors of success.

One more thing: While reading this study I found it very hard to stay focused. Maybe it's just because we're dealing with an unusual late snowstorm in the southern U.S., but maybe the process of thinking about how we deal with distractions is inherently subject to additional distractions. Did you have a similar experience? Let's make this a poll:

Jennifer C. McVay, Michael J. Kane (2009). Conducting the train of thought: Working memory capacity, goal neglect, and mind wandering in an executive-control task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35 (1), 196-204 DOI: 10.1037/a0014104

More like this

Is this related to the Stroop task and ability to focus?… implies that sufficient blood glucose levels allows one to focus better on Stroop.

What's the difference between focusing on Stroop and focusing on SART?

Is working memory at all correlated with ability on Stroop as well?

How about glucose consumption vs the n-back task, which purportedly increases working memory if trained. I know that after playing n-back a few times, I get really tired.

So it's all about working memory. I assume also, that you can build your working memory.

I also assume that this relates to your ability to tune out. I can readily tune out all kinds of distraction while my wife can't focus with significant distraction.

I can read the paper, watch TV, and carry on a conversation with my wife--except she goes bonkers--and in typical German fashion views it as rude and impolite.

Our East Indian neighbers take multiple inputs as the norm--and get frustrated if there aren't multiple inputs.

This would be a correlational finding, right? Because students weren't randomly assigned to have a high or low working memory level, all we know is that ones who scored better on the test of capacity also scored better on accuracy and reported less distractions? And I didn't see any attempt to propose a mechanism... What if some were just more motivated to focus and so they scored well across the board?


Perhaps I'm misreading you, but are you implying that correlational studies are not useful?

While I don't think any would argue that more definitive answers and a mechanism of action would be an improvement, the correlation in and of itself can be quite helpful. Knowing what correlates, and what does not, can provide very helpful insight on the path toward finding the underlying causative mechanisms.

Could you please make the colors on your graph less similar next time? Thank you.

By not_important (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

What program do you use to shut off your computer's internet access?

I need it desperately!! I'm always reading science/tech blogs instead of working on my assignments...


I think gs is taking issue with the statement "McVay and Kane say this means having a large working memory capacity results in a better ability to focus your thoughts, thus avoiding distracting thoughts and staying on-task".

I haven't read the article, but if McVay and Kane really do make this statement, it's not justified by correlational data. This is because the direction of influence might actually be the other way around (e.g. being less distractable allows you to have a larger working memory capacity).


Thanks for pointing that out. I'd misread the bold part.

"McVay and Kane say this means having a large working memory capacity results in a better ability to focus your thoughts, thus avoiding distracting thoughts and staying on-task".

My apologies, I misread the above and attacked you unfairly. I thought you were dismissing the value of correlative studies in general.

Taking a correlative finding and making a 'A results in B' claim is worse than useless.

This seems to tie in well with this study:

"Deficits in executive functioning, including working
memory (WM) deficits, have been suggested to be important
in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
During 2002 to 2003, the authors conducted a multicenter,
randomized, controlled, double-blind trial to investigate
the effect of improving WM by computerized, systematic
practice of WM tasks."

I'm with Brad K. Pleeeeeease tell us what you use?

What I found most interesting about this was that I got about a paragraph in, then an ad popped up at the bottom of my screen. Talk about distracting!

Brad/Sharon. It's called Freedom -- only for Macs, sorry. I can't imagine there isn't something similar for PCs.

It's not foolproof, but it does make it rather inconvenient to get back online, which is enough incentive for me to get some work done.

Koka: I'm told the Seed ad department is working on the popup ads. Apparently it was an ad that was never supposed to run, but is proving a bit pernicious to remove.

About correlations:

Of course, you are all correct to point out that correlation does not imply causation. The researchers actually use a somewhat more sophisticated line of reasoning to come to their conclusion; forgive me if I glossed over it a bit here.

One thing a correlative study can do is cast doubt on theories that are at odds with the correlations. For example, it has been widely speculated that people with high working memory capacity are more able to let their minds wander because they still have the cognitive resources remaining to focus on a task. In this study, a wandering mind was correlated with lower performance, regardless of working memory capacity.

I am distractible if I'm bored. Give me something that deeply interests me, something that involves me emotionally and mobilizes my resources, and distraction is not a problem.

The studies should take that into account.

I think part of being distracted more during the article is that there are links all throughout. Links that provide a deeper understanding to one aspect of the piece, but at the same time are an entree into a slightly different topic.

In another vein, I have found that studying in front of a large window, preferably one that looks out on some foliage, helps me study so much more.

As a school psychologist, in my practice of administering intellectual ability standardized, norm-referenced assessments, I have noticed that an apparent correlation exists between subtests assessing working memory and teacher and parent reports and/or formal diagnoses of ADHD or ADD. I would be interested if anyone could share further information on working memory, especially studies that purport to improve working memory.

By Shaun Sperl (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

Great article - since I read the enire article which usually I would not - the content of what you are doing must have some impact on the available working memory. Give me a good software tech manual and my working menu shrinks to zero before I nearly fall asleep. Also does the working memory have any part of me not hearing and responding to wife fast enough - before she tells me I never listen to her.

By Wayne Fuller (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

Iâd like to thank Dave for writing a post about our article, and to those readers whoâve commented on it. Iâm a big fan of Cog Daily, and so I was delighted to see our work discussed here. I also canât resist the opportunity to comment on some of the points that have come up in the discussion.

Weâve actually *not* argued that WM capacity *causes* differences in distraction, but rather that part of the reason why individual differences in WM capacity predict so many other skills and abilities is because they reflect, in part, individual differences in particular varieties attention control (essentially weâve argued for attention control as a âthird variableâ in the WM x ability/skill relationship).

We believe that we (and others) have amassed a reasonably compelling signature of both experimental and correlational results to support our claims (although theyâre not universally accepted, of course). For example, we find that, in certain cognitive tasks, experimentally dividing subjectsâ attention with a dual-task requirement causes high WM people (âhighsâ) to perform like low WM people (âlowsâ), functionally turning highs into lows.

We can also rule out motivation as a complete explanation for high-low differences because, while we find highs and lows to differ in *some* kinds of attention tasks (those requiring the restraint of habitual responses, as in Stroop, or the constraint of focus against distractions, as in âdichotic listeningâ tasks), they do not differ in other, equally difficult attention tasks (such as in visual search, or in rapid task-switching).

We also find WM-related differences to play themselves out in real-world contexts: In a mind-wandering study in which we used Palm Pilots to randomly probe subjects about their thinking (on- vs. off-task) in their daily lives, we found that WM predicted mind-wandering experiences in some contexts (those that were self-rated as particularly cognitively demanding) but not in others (e.g., those that were self-rated as particularly boring).

This is a very active area of research with many competing ideas and with many unknowns, but we think it will continue to be profitable to investigate the connections between WM capacity and attention capabilities. Thanks again for the comments!

By Michael J. Kane (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink

I'd be curious to know how ADD/ADHD factors into this, or if it affects the outcome at all.

Being ADD myself, I've noticed a difference between when I'm on my meds (Adderall) and when I'm off. When I'm on my meds, I seem to be able to accomplish more when there is are other things going on around me. I can even disengage from one task, address something else, and then re-engage the original task with minimal issues. On the other hand, when I'm off my meds, I need quiet spaces (Mozart, maybe) and minimal distractions.

I work as an auditor and handle multiple clients' audit reports simultaneously. As a manager, I also manage several other auditors who are also managing multiple clients (for which I am also responsible).

Based on my singular observations, it would seem that ADD/ADHD would impact the outcome of the study, depending upon whether it the condition was under treatment or not.


To Shaun Sperl and Becca -

Researchers at University of York (UK; and colleagues) have looked at poor working memory in children, and links with ADHD, SLI, and dyslexia.

Gathercole, S.E., Alloway, T.P., Kirkwood, H.J., Elliott, J.G., Holmes, J., & Hilton, K.A. (2008) Attentional and executive function behaviours in children with poor working memory. LEARNING AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES, 18, 2 214-223.

Alloway, T., Gathercole, S.E., Kirkwood, H., & Elliott, J. (2008) Evaluating the validity of the Automated Working Memory Assessment, EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, 28, 7, 725-734.

Gathercole, S.E. (2008). Working memory in the classroom. PSYCHOLOGIST, 21, 5, 382-385.

I think a lot of working memory has to do with ones ability to retail information for short periods of time, but ones ability to focus has everything to do with their current state of mind, state of their life. All factors which are almost impossible to encapsulate as part of a result because to get people to tell the truth on such studies is near impossible. I for example was very focused during one semester and did extraordinarily well, but then during another semester of school i had family problems and my performance was severely diminished and my capacity to focus was almost nil. I find that the more i can focus on myself or the things that i care less about the better that i perform in long durations of focus for math / physics oriented subjects. Especially when you have to balance coherence in large code bases and still retain / understand what is going on. The moment you lose focus, you start writing logic prone code.

A main function of my job is to name molecules. I find it quite interesting, but the attention to detail is immense. Sometimes, I think it's beyond my capabilities; I've never been a detail oriented person. However, I like what I do enough to try to become more attentive to detail, but it's tough. I'm currently trying all the things you mention in the beginning of the piece to try to focus. Thanks for the suggestions.

I look forward to adding you to my feed reader. Just have to try not to look at it too often.

I think this article is interesting because people never think about working memory being associated with distractability. When reading the article it just made sense that people with low working memory tend not to preform well on task due to distractability. It also was interesting because since I've learned that you can build your working memory though test, it's almost like people don't truely care about or notice that being easily distracted is an issue.