In cognitive psychology, divided attention refers to situations where a person is attempting to engage in two or more tasks simultaneously.
While ‘divided attention’ might have a neutral or even negative connotation, the term ‘multitasking’ refers to the same phenomenon with a more positive spin.
We use divided attention when we drive and talk, study with background noise, cook multiple dishes, listen to a lecture and take notes, watch TV and text, mind our children while washing the dishes, and so much more.
Recent psychological research (e.g. Wickens, McCarley and Gutzwiller, 2022) demonstrates that the human brain to rarely actually divide attention (focus on two tasks or concepts simultaneously), but rather we tend to flick attention between each task (aka alternating attention). Flicking between foci has a draining effect, leading to cognitive overload, exhaustion, and shallow processing.
Divided Attention Definition and Overview
Divided attention is a cognitive act that we engage in when completing multiple tasks simultaneously.
One definition of divided attention from psychology is:
“Divided attention refers to the ability to distribute our attention so that two or more activities may be performed simultaneously. It may involve the use of just one sense (e.g. vision) or two or more senses (e.g. vision, hearing and taste).”(Grivas, Down & Carter, 2004)
Another great scholarly definition, below, demonstrates the difference between divided and selective attention:
“Selective attention is the ability to concentrate on some stimuli at the expense of others. Divided attention is the ability to divide attention across different tasks.”(Galotti, 2015)
Research has shown that the human brain is not designed to multitask efficiently. Instead, it is better suited to focusing on one task at a time.
When we try to multitask, our brain tends to suffer from cognitive overload. This can lead to decrease in task performance and an increase in the likelihood of making in errors.
However, divided attention is often necessary, such as when a parent is keeping an eye on both of their children at once. In such situations, the ability to divide attention efficiently remains a necessary skill.
Factors Influencing Divided Attention
Several factors can influence the extent to which we can divide our attention and our skills in dividing our attention.
These factors include:
- Task difficulty: The more complex and demanding a task is, the more focus and cognitive attention is required, making it harder to divide our attention between multiple tasks.
- Task similarity: When tasks are similar, it may become easier to divide attention between the two tasks, because the mind does not need to switch between modes of thought. However, the two similar tasks may also compete for the same cognitive resources, which may also make dividing attention difficult.
- Task importance: We tend to prioritize tasks we consider more important. This task triage may mean that less important tasks do not get sufficient attention and lead to errors.
- Task novelty: A new or ‘novel’ task requires greater attention as it require more cognitive resources to process and understand. This may mean that it is harder to multitask with novel tasks (Lachman, Lachman & Butterfield, 2015).
Additionally, age, experience, and individual differences in cognitive processes can also affect our ability to multitask.
Cognitive Processes Involved in Multitasking
Multitasking engages the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning and decision-making, and the parietal cortex, which is responsible for attention and perception. These parts of the brain control the following cognitive processes that we rely on when trying to focus on two tasks at once:
- Working memory: Working memory refers to the temporary storage and manipulation of information. Generally, working memory is necessary for complex cognitive tasks because it is a part of the brain where we can quickly store and withdraw units of information in short-term memory (Middlebrooks, 2017). However, working memory is limited, and it is very taxing to hold information in working memory for one task while also trying to work on the other task.
- Task-switching: Research increasingly demonstrates that multitasking doesn’t necessarily mean focusing on two tasks at once, but rather, rapidly switching between two tasks in a process called rapid task switching (or ‘alternating attention’). This is highly taxing and will lead to cognitive overload rapidly (Lachman, Lachman & Butterfield, 2015).
- Inhibition: Inhibition refers to the ability to suppress irrelevant or distracting information. This is necessary in order to maintain focus on the relevant task at hand. When we divide our attention between two tasks, we need to inhibit information emerging from tertiary stimuli (e.g. the garbage truck driving by), but we also need to remain sensitive to new inputs from both tasks that you’re trying to focus on. This is, of course, highly cognitively taxing (Wickens, 2020).
- Monitoring: When multitasking, we need to engage in ongoing evaluation of task performance (for both tasks) and adjusting our strategies as needed to optimize results. Doing this for two separate tasks requires double the cognitive load.
10 Divided Attention Examples
Below are some common situations in which a person may be multitasking:
- Driving and Talking: Driving in and of itself requires multitasking: focusing on our rear view mirror, cars in our blind spots, and what’s in front of us. Driving therefore requires full attention. Talking on the phone, chatting with passengers, or dealing with screaming children in the back of the car, can also divert our attention and increase the risk of accidents (as shown in many shadowing experiments). In fact, studies have shown that talking on the phone while driving can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence. This is why driving while talking on the phone is illegal in many parts of the world.
- Studying with Background Noise: While some claim that studying with music or TV playing in the background is beneficial, others tend to find it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. This is because the brain has limited attentional resources, and background noise can draw our focus away. One reason people may claim music helps them to study may be because the music prevents their minds from wandering to more cognitively taxing thoughts. To optimize your study environment, try to find a quiet space or use noise-cancelling headphones.
- Cooking Multiple Dishes: Preparing multiple dishes at once requires us to divide our attention to ensure that each dish doesn’t end up being overcooked or neglected. This can be challenging, especially for people who find cooking to be a ‘novel task’. However, chefs who cook the same meal every night may fall into a multitasking pattern that ends up being highly effective.
- Listening to a Lecture and Taking Notes: Listening to a lecture and taking notes requires the ability to divide attention between the speaker and the note-taking process. This is often why professors and lecturers will send slides, readings, notes, and even recordings of the lecture afterward. This can help students to go back, reflect, and pick up on points they may have missed.
- Watching TV and Texting: Most people will likely have had the experience of watching a TV program while texting, then realizing that they missed an important detail from the plot. This is because they weren’t literally focusing on two tasks at once: they were engaging in rapid task-switching, which led to missing out on key points in the TV program.
- Exercising and Listening to Music: Listening to music while exercising can be highly motivational, but it can also detract from the focus on the workout, and may cause people to falling into poor posture or losing track of their reps.
- Parenting and Working from Home: The increasingly common phenomenon of parents working from home has caused the need for parents to divide their attention between their work and their children’s needs. To optimize your work and parenting experience, it can be useful to try to establish clear boundaries between work and home life or work with your partner so each partner has deep focus time and parenting time separately.
- Reading and Eating: Reading and eating may seem like a harmless task, but it can lead to a decrease in overall enjoyment of both activities. This is because the brain has limited attentional resources, and dividing attention between two activities can decrease the quality of both.
- Video Conferencing and Emailing: Attempting to actively participate in a video conference while responding to emails can decrease focus on both tasks. While we may think we’re being clever by getting two tasks done at once, we risk falling into the situation where we get called up to contribute and we haven’t been fully focusing, so you’re stuck on the spot feeling like you missed out!
- Listening to an Audiobook and Cleaning: Dividing attention between an audiobook and household chores may lead to reduced comprehension of the audiobook’s content as well as suboptimal cleaning results, such as missing a patch while mopping or forgetting to clean the windows.
- Change blindness: Paying so much attention to the magician’s left hand, that you fail to notice that the magician changed the cards in his right hand.
Divided attention is a complex cognitive process that can be necessary in the busy modern world, but can also lead to decreased task performance.
Wheras once we used to make a distinction between divided attention and attention switching, today, we tend to acknowledge that divided attention usually is rapid task-switching (with some exceptions, see: Wickens, McCarley and Gutzwiller, 2022).
Many of the points made in this article have highlighted the downsides of divided attention. However, when working on tasks that are low-taxing or that are not novel to us, we can often achieve both simultaneously successfully. Indeed, we are regularly multitasking in our daily lives, allowing our parietal cortex and prefrontal cortex to help us to triage our focus and tell us when to pay extra attention to something important.
Galotti, K. M. (2015). Cognitive development: Infancy through adolescence. London: Sage Publications.
Grivas, J., Down, R., & Carter, L. (2004). Psychology: VCE Units 3&4. Sydney: Macmillan Education.
Lachman, R., Lachman, J. L., & Butterfield, E. C. (2015). Cognitive psychology and information processing: An introduction. Psychology Press.
Middlebrooks, C. D., Kerr, T., & Castel, A. D. (2017). Selectively distracted: Divided attention and memory for important information. Psychological science, 28(8), 1103-1115.
Wickens, C. D., McCarley, J. S., & Gutzwiller, R. S. (2022). Applied attention theory. CRC press.
Wickens, C. D. (2020). Processing resources and attention. In Multiple-task performance (pp. 3-34). CRC Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]