Saturday, 7 February 2015

Out of Sight, Out of Mind.

In the movie Limitless, the protagonist (actor Bradley Cooper) is able to increase the capacity at which he uses his brain after consuming a ‘smart pill’. This pill quite literally changes his life. He goes from being a struggling writer to a successful stock broker in a matter of weeks. The bad news is, no such pill actually exists. *cue loud sigh*. The good news, however, is that there exists a technique you can practice which may help improve your attention and productivity.

What is this magical technique I speak of? Before sitting down to work on a task, remove all possible distractions from your immediate environment (and yes, this most definitely includes your cellphone). Now you might be thinking… “This doesn’t apply to me, because I can actually concentrate quite well even with my cellphone in the room”. However, there is now evidence to suggest that even having your cell phone in sight may be negatively impacting your attention and productivity. 

Researchers Thornton, Faires, Robbins and Rollins (2014) from the University of Sourthern Maine in Portland set out to examine this phenomenon. Specifically, they investigated how the presence of a cellphone affects one’s performance on both simple and difficult tasks. University students were recruited for the purpose of this study and were assigned to either the ‘cellphone’ condition or the ‘no cellphone’ condition. Participants in both conditions were asked to complete four tasks: a simple math task, a complex math task, a simple tracing task, and a complex tracing task. Prior to completing the tasks, participants in the cellphone condition were asked to leave their cellphone on top of the desk at which they were completing the study. They were told to continue completing the tasks even if/when their cellphone went off. In order to ensure participants in this condition were not aware of the purpose of the study, the experimenter explained to them that they needed their cellphone in order to complete a questionnaire at the end of the study. (However no questionnaire actually existed). Participants in both conditions scored the same on the two simple tasks, however they scored differently on the two complex tasks, such that participants in the cellphone condition did more poorly on both complex tasks than participants in the no cellphone condition. 

One possible explanation the researchers of this study provide for these results is the following: For many, a cellphone serves as the primary form of communication and interaction with others. Therefore when they see their cellphone,  they are immediately reminded of these interactions and the defining role they play in their lives. As a result, individuals may feel conflicted between wanting to attend to others (via their cellphone) and wanting to concentrate on the task at hand.

Although the saying "out of sight, out of mind" may not be applicable to all situations, it most definitely applies to this one. The findings reported here prove that keeping your cellphone out of sight when working on a complex task, such as studying for a math exam, results in you doing better on the task than if you had left your cellphone beside you. So the next time you are cramming for that algebra exam, why not try this technique out. Who might just work. Oh and trust me, your friends will not end their friendship with you because you took too long to answer their texts when you were busy studying.  

Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479.

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