Visual search, or simply looking for something, is something people do daily. From scanning aisles for favorite products at the store to monitoring road conditions while driving, search is an essential function of human vision and attention. However, distractions can divert us, capturing our attention at inopportune moments.
But this isn’t always a negative. Our ability to get distracted plays an important role in alerting us to hazards, in advertising, and in education research. For example, bright, attention-grabbing colors are often used on road signs to alert us to important information. Metacognition, or self-knowledge about our thinking, can help us understand these real-world behaviors. But do people always know when they get distracted?
published in Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics explored this question. Participants engaged in a series of computer-based search tasks where the goal was to find a target shape on the screen, situated among other shapes. In some trials, a colorful distracting shape was added to the array. After some trials with a "distractor" present, the researchers asked the participants to report whether or not they had been distracted. When the participants got distracted, it took them longer to perform the task at hand: reaction times are longer in these trials than in those when they weren’t distracted. By comparing these reaction times to participants’ claims of being distracted or not, the researchers came to a conclusion. People are typically aware of when they get distracted. However, performance wasn’t perfect, and study participants didn’t always catch when their attention had wandered.
This suggests that people can often, but not always, tell when they are distracted. This may lead us to a better understanding of how we cope with distractions, and future work may indicate how people can be more aware of distraction and learn how to avoid it when necessary.