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The spotlight model of attention and our ability to multitask

The spotlight model of attention focuses on how we consciously process specific stimuli, much like a flashlight in a dark room. It explains why we can't multitask effectively, as our attention shifts between tasks rather than covering them simultaneously. This model is crucial in understanding behaviors like distracted driving and poor academic performance due to social media use.

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Video transcript

- When we talk about selective attention, we are really talking about focusing our conscious awareness on a particular stimulus, or group of stimuli. And one way that we can think of this is using a metaphor of a flashlight or a spotlight. So imagine that you're in a dark room, or a dark cave with a flashlight. You can really only see what that beam of light is pointing at at any moment in time. The rest of the surrounding area is still dark. And you can move that flashlight beam around, and you can focus in on different things, but you can't illuminate everything at the same time. And that is what selective attention is all about. We take in a ton of information about the environment from our five senses, but we don't consciously process all of it. But when something in our environment is brought to our attention, we can swing our attentional spotlight around to consciously focus on it. So before this very second, you probably weren't thinking about the feeling of your socks on your feet, or the pressure that your chair puts on your back, or the sound of your computer fan. But now you probably are, because I've mentioned it, and so you've shifted your attention towards it. And this works for memory too, think back to one of your lecture halls or classrooms, and think about how many windows it has. And you should know this, right? I mean, you see it every day, or every other day. But you probably don't remember. And it isn't because you didn't see it, it's because you didn't ever attend to it. However, even though we can only consciously attend to a small amount of information at a time, we know that a lot of other information is being taken in by our bodies. And we seem to be aware of that information, at least at an unconscious level. And one example of this is priming. And priming is an effect where exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus. And just to give you a quick example, you can probably solve these anagrams a lot faster than you can solve these anagrams. And why might this happen? I mean, they're all four-letter words, they're all common words. But these words are more familiar to you, because you just heard me saying them when I was describing the spotlight model of attention. Whereas I haven't mentioned these words before. You are able to figure out these first anagrams and not these second anagrams because you were primed for them. And the way that this relates to attention is that we often attend to information that we have been selectively primed for, even if we are not consciously attending to it. And this can help to explain the cocktail party effect, which is the phenomenon where your attention is pulled by someone saying your name, even if they are across a room and you are engaged in a different conversation. And take a moment to think about this in terms of priming. Because it turns out that we are very practiced from a very early age to respond when our name is called. And so it makes sense that our name would be such a strong prime for pulling our attention. The spotlight model of attention is similar to another model that you may have heard of, and that's the resource model of attention, which states that we have limited resources when it comes to attention. Resources that are easily overtasked if we try to pay attention to multiple things at once. And if you think about it, both the spotlight theory and the resource model say something implicitly about our ability to multi-task. Which is that we probably aren't actually very good at it. And this has been suggested through a number of research studies. In one kind of task, a dichotic listening task, A research participant would wear headphones that would play something different in each ear. The participant is then instructed to focus on just one of the streams of information that they are being exposed to. Which is called the attended channel. While ignoring the information that's being presented to the other ear, which is called the unattended channel. And when people do this task, they have pretty good recall for the information that's presented to the attended ear, but they are not able to recall the information that was presented to the unattended ear. But let's take a minute to think about multi-tasking and divided attention in terms of something really serious, like talking on the phone or texting while driving. And I'm sure that some of you, or maybe most of you, have answered the phone while driving, or maybe texted someone to let them know that you were running late. But applying the spotlight model, or the resource model of attention to this, it might be that we're not really mutli-tasking at all. Instead, we're shifting our attention from the road to our phone, and then back to the road. And you probably know by now that this actually results in a high number of car accidents. Which is why some states have even made the effort to ban talking on your cell phone or texting while driving. But what about the things that we typically consider to be less serious as distractors? Things like singing along to the radio, or talking to a friend in the passenger seat. Do these things divide our attention as well? And if so, are they as bad as texting while driving? Studies have shown that three factors seem to have an influence when it comes to our ability to perform multiple tasks at once. The first one is task similarity. Think about listening to the radio while writing a paper. Would it be easier to listen to an interview on NPR, or classical music? Well, because the interview and writing the paper are similar tasks in that they both involve verbal processing, we would predict it to be much more difficult to multi-task in that situation as compared to cases where the two tasks are dissimilar. How difficult a task is also has an effect. And texting while driving is in fact more difficult than talking to a passenger in a car, or singing along to Journey. And this also explains a behavior that I have noticed in myself, which is that I usually have my radio on when I'm driving around my neighborhood, but I tend to turn it off or turn it down when I'm driving in an unfamiliar town. Because driving becomes a much harder task when I'm not really sure where I'm going, and it requires more of my focus. Another thing that can have an effect on our ability to multitask is practice. Activities that are very well practiced become automatic processes, or things that can occur without the need for attention. So to stick with our driving example, have you ever kind of zoned out while driving only to find yourself home? But you don't really remember the drive there? Well, that's something that tends to happen to practiced drivers, not new ones. Controlled processes, on the other hand, are those that we are consciously aware of. And those are the tasks that we would struggle to complete if our attention was divided. And one thing that determines whether or not a task is automatic or controlled is how often we've practiced it. And while studies have shown that these three things can influence how well we're able to multitask, in general, most of the research has shown that multi-tasking is not as efficient as working on a single task, even if the tasks are relatively simple. And this is true when it comes to learning as well. A number of recent studies have reported that high levels of social media use, so things like going on Facebook and text messaging, is correlated with poor student grades. And of course, this is just a correlation, so we can't decide any causality to it. We really don't know whether spending a lot of time on Facebook results in lower grades, or whether or not those who do poorly in school are more likely to spend more time on social media, or even if a third factor is driving both of these. But even so, I think it's something that you might want to consider if you're a student. And I have to say that this is actually one of the things that I really love about psychology, that we can apply so much of it to our daily lives. And so really take a moment to think about this and what it might mean for your behavior in terms of whether or not you should do things like listen to music or watch a show while studying. You can really get a lot out of this.