Shifting attention can interfere with our perceptions of reality

We live in a world of distractions. We multitask our way through our days. We wear watches that alert us to text messages. We carry phones that buzz with breaking news.

You might even be reading this story because you got distracted.

A new study suggests that distractions — those pesky interruptions that pull us away from our goals — might change our perception of what’s real, making us believe we saw something different from what we actually saw.

Even more troubling, the study suggests people might not realize their perception has changed — to the contrary, they might feel great confidence in what they think they saw.

“We wanted to find out what happens if you’re trying to pay attention to one thing and something else interferes,” said Julie Golomb, senior author and associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. “Our visual environment contains way too many things for us to process in a given moment, so how do we reconcile those pressures?”

The results, published online recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, indicate that, sometimes, we don’t.

Results showed that people sometimes confused the color of an object they were supposed to remember with one that was a distraction. Others overcompensated and thought the color they were supposed to remember was even more different from the distraction object than it actually was.

“It implies that there are deeper consequences of having your attention drawn away that might actually change what you are perceiving,” said Golomb, who is director of Ohio State’s Vision and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. “It showed us that we clearly don’t understand the full implications of distraction.”

To evaluate how distraction interacts with reality, the researchers showed study participants four different-colored squares on a computer screen. The researchers asked participants to focus on one specific square. But sometimes a bright distractor appeared around a different square, pulling the participant’s attention away, even briefly, from the original square of focus.

The researchers then showed study participants a color wheel containing the entire color spectrum and asked them to click on the wheel where the color most closely matched the color of the original square.

Participants then highlighted a range of the color wheel to indicate how confident they were in their choice. Highlighting a narrow range indicated great confidence; highlighting a wider range indicated less confidence.

The results showed that the distraction color “bled” into the focus color in one of two ways: Either people thought the focus square was the color of the distraction square, or they overcompensated, choosing a hue of the focus color that was farther away on the color wheel from the distraction color.

For example, if the focus square was green and the distraction color orange, participants clicked in the blue-green area of the wheel — close to the original color, but farther away from the distraction color, as if to overcompensate.

Even more striking, the results showed participants were just as confident when they clicked on the distraction color as when they selected the correct color.

“It means that, on average, those two types of responses were associated with the same confidence range size,” Golomb said. “On the trials where they reported the distractor color, they didn’t seem aware that it was an error.”

This study included 26 participants. Additional research is already underway at Ohio State to attempt to answer more questions about the ways in which distractions interact with reality.

“It raises an interesting consequence for memory — could it be that, if distraction happens with the right timing, you might adopt elements from the distraction into the thing you think you remember? Could it mean that some of our memory errors might be because we perceived something wrong in the first place?” said Jiageng Chen, lead author and graduate student researcher at Ohio State’s Vision and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. “We don’t know yet, but it is an interesting area for future study.”

Andrew Leber, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State, is also co-author of this research, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.