Distraction Is Changing Our Perception of Reality

If we want to preserve the concept of reality, we have to fight for it.

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

Here’s the bad news: The battle for our attention is over. We lost. The attention economy won. We are no match for technologies that have been designed to keep us in a constant state of endless distraction.

Distraction isn’t going away, and we aren’t getting any better at managing it. If anything, we’re getting worse because we are simply adapting to living in a state of constant cognitive chaos where our thinking is regularly and relentlessly compromised.

Thinking while distracted makes us bad decision-makers, but it also does something to us that may be far worse and have far bigger consequences. Distracted thinking actually shapes our view of reality.

When Distraction Defines Reality

Study participants were shown four colored squares and asked to focus their attention on one of them. They were then asked to report the range of color of that one square. Occasionally the researchers would flash a different color to distract the participants. The results were stunning.

When distracted, participants did one of two things: They selected the distraction color over their focus color, or they reported their focus color as a tone furthest from the distraction color. Either way, participants were confident that they’d correctly reported the color they’d observed in their focus square.

The researchers suggest that when we are in a state of distraction — even if that distraction is minor — we may see reality differently, often without realizing it. In the case of this study, people who reported the color of the distraction had no idea that they’d remembered the wrong color. They not only encoded the wrong information, but they also associated it with a different reality. For example, imagine that I’m focusing on the green pen sitting on my desk, but then someone flashes a blue eraser in front of my face. This study suggests that I may very well tell you later (quite confidently, in fact)that I was looking at a blue pen!

Study participants who reported the focus color as significantly different from the distraction color were probably overcompensating. Their brains were aware of the distraction and worked extra hard to make sure not to encode the wrong information. But the brain worked too hard! It would be like me focusing on my green pen, seeing a blue eraser, and then reporting to you that my pen was DEFINITELY NOT EVEN REMOTELY BLUE. In fact, I might even report that the pen was orange because that color is the opposite of blue.

Given that we are always distracted, even when we think we are not, we have little hope of understanding, analyzing, and evaluating the complicated and nuanced ideas we encounter every day if our perceptions of reality are so easily distorted.

Whether or not we see a green or blue pen may not matter much, but what happens when we read a reputable news report on a world event while distracted?

Let’s say a politician was found guilty of bribery. We were distracted when we read the article, so we might later remember (and truly believe) that the article said the politician was not found guilty of bribery. We might argue vociferously that we absolutely remember that he was not arrested. In all likelihood, we believe ourselves. But if we are reading, listening, or thinking while distracted, we may be perceiving a totally different reality.

We Can Fight Distraction

Matthew Crawford — philosopher, motorcycle mechanic, and author of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (2015) — suggests that we choose what we pay attention day after day, minute by minute. Eventually, we create an “ecology of attention” that reflects a specific set of patterns and cultural values. Put more simply, what we think we know about the world is based on what we perceive as reality. And what we perceive depends on what we pay attention to.

If we’ve created an ecosystem of attention that is rife with distraction, we probably understand very little about anything. We also undoubtedly feel like we are constantly living in a state of chaos.

To be less distracted, we have to create a strong personal ecology of attention that values and prioritizes focus, not just because that makes us more efficient (it does — and we really suck at multitasking). We should focus because reality depends upon it.

The war for attention will continue to wage on, but we aren’t the soldiers in this battle. We are the spoils of war, the bounty advertisers and corporations are fighting to possess. In the process, we are losing our grip on reality because we can’t think.

If we want “save” reality, let’s commit to acknowledging the ways in which distraction is not just an innocuous by-product of a digital world. Distraction may be changing how we see the world, but we can stop it.

Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

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Christine Seifert, PhD

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Christine Seifert is a professor, writer, and reader. She is philosophically opposed to pep rallies. https://ladyprofessorreads.com/christine-seifert-portfolio/

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