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Distractions Can Change Perceptions of What is Real

A new study shows that distractions might change our perception of what’s real, making us believe we saw something different from what we actually saw.

“We wanted to find out what happens if you’re trying to pay attention to one thing and something else interferes,” said Dr. Julie Golomb, senior author and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University. “Our visual environment contains way too many things for us to process in a given moment, so how do we reconcile those pressures?”

According to the study’s findings, sometimes we don’t.

The study discovered that people sometimes confused the color of an object they were supposed to remember with one that was a distraction. Others overcompensated and thought the color they were supposed to remember was even more different from the distraction than it actually was.

“It implies that there are deeper consequences of having your attention drawn away that might actually change what you are perceiving,” said Golomb, who is director of Ohio State’s Vision and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. “It showed us that we clearly don’t understand the full implications of distraction.”

To evaluate how distraction interacts with reality, the researchers showed study participants four different-colored squares on a computer screen. The participants were asked to focus on one specific square. But sometimes a bright distractor appeared around a different square, pulling the participant’s attention away, even briefly, from the original square of focus.

The researchers then showed study participants a color wheel containing the entire color spectrum and asked them to click on the wheel where the color most closely matched the color of the original square.

Participants also highlighted a range of the color wheel to indicate how confident they were in their choice. Highlighting a narrow range indicated great confidence, while highlighting a wider range indicated less confidence, the researchers explained.

The results showed that the distraction color “bled” into the focus color in one of two ways: Either people thought the focus square was the color of the distraction square, or they overcompensated, choosing a hue of the focus color that was farther away on the color wheel from the distraction color, the researchers reported.

For example, if the focus square was green and the distraction color orange, participants clicked in the blue-green area of the wheel — close to the original color, but farther away from the distraction color, as if to overcompensate, the researchers said.

Even more striking, the results showed participants were just as confident when they clicked on the distraction color as when they selected the correct color, researchers added.

“It means that, on average, those two types of responses were associated with the same confidence range size,” Golomb said. “On the trials where they reported the distractor color, they didn’t seem aware that it was an error.”

The study included 26 participants. Additional research is already underway at Ohio State to attempt to answer more questions about the ways in which distractions interact with reality.

“It raises an interesting consequence for memory — could it be that, if distraction happens with the right timing, you might adopt elements from the distraction into the thing you think you remember? Could it mean that some of our memory errors might be because we perceived something wrong in the first place?” said Jiageng Chen, lead author and a graduate student researcher at Ohio State’s Vision and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.

“We don’t know yet, but it is an interesting area for future study.”

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

Source: The Ohio State University

Distractions Can Change Perceptions of What is Real

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). Distractions Can Change Perceptions of What is Real. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Sep 2019 (Originally: 14 Sep 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Sep 2019
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