On the information alarmageddon

New York Magazine has an article arguing that the concerns about digital technology drastically affecting our minds are just hype. I really wanted to like it but it’s just another poorly researched piece on the psychology of digital technology.

Research has shown that distraction can improve exactly the sorts of skills that the digital doomsayers say will be broken by the high-tech world, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in any of the recent high-profile articles on the predicted digital meltdown.

In fact, there is a fairly sizeable scientific literature on how interruption affects the ability to complete a task, and instant messaging has been specifically studied.

But despite getting lots of opinions from everyone from attention researcher David Meyer to lifehacker Merlin Mann only one single ‘study’ on the distracting effect of technology is mentioned in the New York Magazine article: “people who frequently check their email has tested less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana”.

This is quite amazing because not only was the ‘study’ in question not an actual scientific study, it was PR stunt for Hewlett Packard, this isn’t even an accurate description of it (users were interrupted with email during an IQ test and scored worse, big surprise).

The issue actually breaks down into two parts, one is a scientific question: what is the psychological effect of distraction? and the other, a cultural one: have we become a society where high levels of distraction are more acceptable?

As I mentioned, the first question has been very well researched and the general conclusion is that distraction reduces our ability to complete tasks. Essentially, it’s saying that distraction is distracting, which is hardly headline news.

But it also turns out that distraction is most disruptive to stimulus based search tasks, when we are flicking our attention around scanning for bits of information. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when we’re on alert for new and different things, something salient like an instant message grabs our attention and knocks us off course.

More thoughtful tasks involving processing meaning are the least affected. This is interesting because most of the digital doomsayers suggest it is exactly this sort of deep thought that being affected by communication technology.

The other line of argument is that all this distraction makes us less creative because creativity needs focus to flourish.

Although not as well studied, it seems this is unlikely. While we assume that distraction reduces creativity, but lab studies tend to show the reverse.

Distraction has also been found to improve decision making, especially for complex fuzzy decisions – again exactly the sort that the doomsayers say will most be at peril.

These studies find that too much concentration reduces our creative thinking because we’re stuck in one mind-set, deliberately filtering out what we’ve already decided is irrelevant, thereby already discarding counter-intuitive ideas (actually this is something the article does touch on). We can speculate that this may be why a preliminary study found that amphetamine-based concentration drug Adderall reduced creativity.

The cultural issue is perhaps more important, but on an individual level is more easily addressed.

You have control over the technology of distraction. If you can’t concentrate, switch it off. It it is your job to be distracted and it is affecting other essential parts of your role, that is something to take up with your employers.

It’s no different than if you’re being distracted by the sound of traffic and can’t do your job. Maybe you need an office away from the street? If you or your employers can’t do anything about it, maybe that’s just one of the downsides of the job.

What research hasn’t yet shown is that digital technology is having a significant negative influence on our minds or brains. In some cases, it’s showing the reverse.

History has taught us that we worry about widespread new technology and this is usually expressed in society in terms of its negative impact on our minds and social relationships.

If you’re really concerned about cognitive abilities, look after your cardiovascular health (eat well and exercise), cherish your relationships, stay mentally active and experience diverse and interesting things. All of which have been shown to maintain mental function, especially as we age.

Technology has an impact on the mind but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the influence of your health and your relationships.

I’m constantly surprised that the impact of technology is clearly of such widespread interest to merit headline grabbing articles in international publications, but apparently not interesting enough that journalists will actually use the internet to find the research.

It’s like writing a travel guide without ever visiting the country. I’m just guessing the editors have yet to catch on to the scam.

Link to NYMag article ‘In Defense of Distraction’.

3 thoughts on “On the information alarmageddon”

  1. This is my highly personal take on things: you have to be able to do both – you have to be able to concentrate and you have to be able to handle a lot of things at once.
    As soon as a topic like this comes up most people switch on their “black and white” view. That’s not helpful.
    Is protein good or bad? Are vitamins good or bad?
    The answer is always the same: it depends.
    When I’m treating a patient (I’m a PT) with chronic pain for example I often find that these people have lost the ability to focus on one thing only. If this is due to their being in chronic pain I can’t tell. But in order to successfully treat chronic pain it’s essential to re-learn that skill.
    So I’d advise everybody to sharpen their concentration if they want to stay healthy. πŸ˜‰

  2. I was born with hydrocephalus (www.hydroassoc.org). I take two different antiseizure medications. At my last office job before I went on disability, I couldn’t concentrate on my job because the typical “office sounds” (conversation, phones ringing, copiers/scanners buzzing, etc) distracted me so much. Since my job did not involve direct person-to-person contact, or telephone conversation, on a regular basis, I wore a Walkman to work (that’s an old fashioned ipod, for you youngsters πŸ™‚ ). Listening specifically to music I enjoyed, at a volume low enough to where I could still hear it, but also hear human speech if someone needed to get my attention, proved very helpful to me in focusing my attention on my work. I know it seems counterintuitive–lots of people would probably think listening to music is just the same as listening to ambient office sounds–but it worked for me.

  3. Sorry, but the scientific evidence of the good sides of distraction is also weak, the mentioned studies from Ap Dijksterhuis and his “Deliberation-Without-Attention” effect is well contradicted by Lassiter & Co. in Psych. Science 6/2009.
    Distraction = interruption? A lot of stuff, not sure, what is worth reading, but look at http://interruptions.net/literature.htm

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