How Watching the Clock Affects Performance
July 23, 2012
by Robin Tricoles
Joseph Magliano says he gets easily distracted when he folds his laundry. But when he sits down to write a research paper he is focused, laser focused.
What’s capturing Magliano’s attention lately is how focus affects people’s cognitive ability, particularly their performance in school.
So, Magliano, a cognitive psychologist, and graduate student James Woehrle, tested 100 undergraduates’ working-memory capacity, and in particular their ability to control where they placed their attention. The two researchers asked the students to check the accuracy of a set of simple mathematical equations while keeping in mind they had to complete the work in an allotted time. Magliano and Woehrle emphasized that accurately completing the mathematical task was more important than estimating the passage of time.
Here’s what Magliano and Woehrle found: those with a relatively low working-memory capacity, the ability to control their attention, were less accurate at the math than those with high working-memory capacity. But those with low working-memory capacity were more accurate at estimating the passage of time. In other words, those students with less attentional control paid more attention to the passage of time than to the math problems.
“How we perceive time is really affected by where our attention is directed,” says Magliano. Researchers say that’s because tucked inside our brains is a pacemaker equipped with a counter. The pacemaker’s job is to send a constant number of temporal pulses to the counter. And the counter’s job is to record the pulses—based on a person’s attention to time. So, paying attention to the passage of time increases the number of pulses recorded and lengthens our perception of time.
“Our perception of time is dependent on how much attention we’re devoting to this temporal gate keeper,” says Magliano. “When we are devoting a lot of attention to it, time is going to seem to drag. And when we’re directing attention away from it, time seems to fly."
That’s why focusing on an activity and not being distracted is important when it comes to academic performance, be it test taking or reading comprehension.
“We started this study because we were interested in the academic implications of attentional control because a lack of focus can decrease academic performance,” says Magliano. “The study tells us there are students who are susceptible to being distracted by how much time they’ve worked on something. If their attention shifts from what they’re doing toward contextual things like how much time and effort they’ve put into something, those things are going to serve as distraction and lead to a decrease in performance.”
Naturally, the ability to stay focused, to stay engaged, varies from person to person, but our working memory capacity seems relatively fixed. However, Magliano says there are things people can do to boost their cognitive performance.
“Although you might not be able to change your working memory capacity much, you can change your level of expertise,” says Magliano. “The more of an expert you are in a topic, the less resources it takes to execute whatever you have to execute. So, from that perspective the best intervention is to develop your expertise in the topic. What can help you focus is having a huge body of knowledge behind you.”
For instance, when children first learn to read, they’re not fluent in the mechanics of reading. So, all their resources are directed toward the low-level mechanics of reading, and they don’t have many resources left over for the back-end processes that lead to comprehension, says Magliano. But once they become fluent at reading and develop a high-degree of proficiency, they have resources to devote to mental computation.
Taking breaks can also boost cognitive performance. Breaks reduce the chances that the time being taken to complete a task will become a preoccupation. “You’re fighting against the propensity to get distracted by the fact that you probably have put some time into this task,” explains Magliano. “When we’re working on smaller segments, we’re less apt to be distracted by time and how much time we’ve put into something.
What’s more, breaks are related to the basic science of memory performance and learning, Magliano says. “Learning is better when you distribute your efforts over time.”
“Our study warns of the dangers of being distracted by the passage of time,” says Magliano. “If you’re aware that you’re getting distracted by the passage of time, you have to be aware it’s going to affect your performance. When you’re in that situation, you either need to double down your attentional resources or take a break. And we already know that performance is better when it’s broken up rather than when we do something all in one sitting.”
Joseph Magliano is professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. He studies the cognitive process involved in understanding what we read and watch. Magliano is past president of the Society for Computers in Psychology.