Being easily distracted helps older adults memorize and make decisions

Sleepiness or a glass of wine may have a similar effect on younger adults, too.

tarekamerAs people age, they often find it harder and harder to focus. That may not be entirely a bad thing, say the authors of a new study in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Their findings suggest that distractibility can actually be an asset, allowing older adults to outperform younger adults in certain cognitive tasks. Tarek Amer explains why.

ResearchGate: What is focus? What is distraction?

Tarek Amer: We define focus as the ability to selectively pay attention to a set of target stimuli, while ignoring simultaneously occurring irrelevant (or distracting) stimuli. Distractions can be external, for example background noise, or internal—thoughts irrelevant to the task at hand.

RG: How did you go about studying the merits of being distracted?

Amer: This line of work stems from earlier findings demonstrating that although older adults' distractibility can have negative consequences—as commonly reported—the distracting information can actually aid performance if it is useful to a current task. For instance, clues to a problem solving task presented as distracting information that should be ignored can actually help to solve the problem. We extended that work to examine the different contexts in which older adults' distractibility has benefits. For example, do older adults benefit from current as well as previous distractors? Do they show a benefit from perceptual as well as conceptual knowledge of distractors?

This figure shows the relationship between task performance and level of cognitive control. Credit: Amer, Campbell, Hasher/Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2016

RG: What made you want to explore this question?

Amer: The fact that most healthy older adults are capable of performing daily activities, and can even outperform young adults on certain tasks—e.g. some tasks that involve decision making—was surprising to me. Existing studies paint a negative picture of older adults' cognitive abilities, so I was motivated to explore the discrepancy between empirical findings and real-world experience. There must be something about older adults' pattern of cognition that helps them perform everyday tasks.

RG: What did you find?

Amer: In our review, we showed that older adults indeed perform better than younger adults on various tasks that match their pattern of cognition. They showed an advantage on tasks which benefited from distractors presented previously in the context of an experiment. For example, they answered more general knowledge questions when the answers were presented as distractors in a previous task.

RG: Do the benefits of distraction outweigh its costs in older adults?

Amer: This is a very interesting question that we are currently examining in the lab. There are benefits and costs to distractibility that clearly depend on the nature of the task and context. The extent to which processing useful distracting information hurts target task performance is a question for future research.

RG: Are older people just not used to the distractions of today like cell phones and the internet?

Amer: Distraction can come in many forms. While ringing cell phones and other modern distractions are less familiar to older adults and may be more distracting than they would be to younger adults, our work suggests that even when the distracting material is highly familiar, such as distracting words while reading, older adults continue to show this effect.

RG: Does distraction also have a bright side for younger people too?

Amer: Yes, when younger adults are tested at an off-peak time of day—tested in the morning if they are evening types—or if they are moderately intoxicated, they show some of the benefits that older adults show.

RG: Would it make more sense from an evolutionary or societal perspective for older people to be more distracted?

Amer: If older adults' role in society involves more decision making that benefits from their greater life experience, then it would be beneficial to have reduced cognitive control that possibly allows them to incorporate their previous experiences when making those decisions. In other words, it might be possible that older adults' wisdom is related to their "less rigid" cognitive style.

Featured image courtesy of Jason Howie.