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Divided attention

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Divided attention is the condition of paying attention to more than one stimulus or to a stimulus presented in more than one modality.

It is important for every day life. Not often is someone engaged in just one task. Talking on the phone while driving, doing homework while listening to music, ...etc. are all examples of dividing our attention to several different tasks. In fact merely driving causes our focus to be split between several different things at once. Once must always be aware of their speed, their surroundings, and the condition of their car. Failure to notice any of these can result in a possible ticket to a terrible car accident.

Divided attention can be improved on with practice. With practice on the desired tasks it it possible to use up less attentional resources while performing both tasks at once. There have also been signs that how well people divide their attention depends on that person's intelligence. (Hunt & Lansman, 1982). A possibility is that an intelligent person has an effective way mentally of splitting the tasks up mentally and have an amazing ability to share the focus.

Casual observation suggests that attention is a limited resource and is not all-or-none: the more attention is devoted to one aspect or dimension of the environment, the less is available for others.[1] In preparing a meal you may divide your attention among a number of things, but a sudden spill may distract you from a falling souffle. A number of experiments have studied this sort of thing in animals. For example, in one experiment, a tone and a light came on simultaneously. The pigeon subjects gained reward only by choosing the correct combination of the two dimensions (a high pitch together with a yellow light). The birds did fairly well at this task, presumably by dividing attention between the two dimensions. When only one of the stimulus dimensions varied, while the other was held at its rewarded value, discrimination improved on the variable stimulus, and later tests showed that discrimination had also gotten worse on the alternative stimulus dimension.[2] These outcomes are consistent with the idea that attention is a limited resource that can be more or less focused among incoming stimuli.

In learning

Divided attention at learning has a negative impact on remember responses.[3] A study was done which consisted of 72 target words which were divided into two study lists.[3] Half of the participants were required to study the list in an undivided attention condition and half of the subjects studied the list in a divided attention condition.[3] In the divided attention condition, subjects had to study the list while listening to and reporting high, low, or medium tone sequences.[3] The recognition test consisted of participants deciding whether items were old or new; if items were deemed old, participants were then required to say whether items were remembered or known.[3] It was found that the divided attention condition impaired the level of correct remember responses; however, the know responses seemed unaffected.[3]


See also


  1. Zentall, T. R. (2004) Selective and divided attention in animals. ‘’Behavioural Processes’’ 69, 1-16
  2. Blough, D. S. (1969) Attention shifts in a maintained discrimination. ‘’Science’’,166, 125-126
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Gardiner, J.M., & Parkin, A.J. (1990). Attention and recollective experience in recognition memory. Memory & Cognition, 18(6), 579-583.

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