Arts & Sciences

A surprising ingredient for improved visual focus? Distraction.

Trying to find a needle in a haystack? A recent study by Richard Abrams and Xiaojin Ma suggests that, in the right context, a little distraction could help us better sort through visual information. (Photo: The Ampersand)

Trying to find a needle in a haystack? A new study by researchers in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences suggests a little distraction could be a good thing.

Whether we’re looking for our favorite cereal at the grocery store or searching for our car in the parking lot, most people know the challenge of spotting one item in a sea of distractions. “There’s so much information coming at us from our visual world,” said Richard Abrams, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences. “We cannot process all of it, so we have to pick and choose which objects get our attention.” 


Psychologists have spent decades studying the brain’s ability to target specific objects, but a recent study by Abrams and graduate student Xiaojin Ma has led to a surprising finding: In some situations, distractions can help us focus on what matters. 

The study, published in Psychological Science, involved 120 college students who were asked to find a target object — a green circle — among an assortment of decoy objects on a computer screen. “We designed it so the target object and the other objects competed for attention,” Ma said. 

Through a series of five experiments, Abrams and Ma found ignoring a red “distractor” helped the students better focus on a nearby target that was in a distinct green color. The students were told ahead of time that the target was green and the distractors were red. “It created a contrast that helped the target stand out,” Abrams said.

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