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Study: Distractibility trait common in most people

While levels of distractibility and attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms were linked, more difficult tasks were shown in the study to keep participants from being distracted.

By Stephen Feller
Study: Distractibility trait common in most people
The new study suggests distractibility ranges from low to high across the population, occurring at clinical levels in people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Photo by antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

LONDON, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- A new study suggests distractibility is a continuous trait that ranges from low to high throughout the population rather than only in people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Researchers at University College London tested how distractible people are, and then surveyed them on ADHD symptoms from childhood, finding those whose attention was more easily drawn away from tasks exhibited more of the symptoms when they were young.

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The researchers also found the more attention a task demands, the more difficult it was to distract people from it -- regardless of ADHD symptoms. This suggests requiring more attention to complete a task may be one way to keep a person's focus, they said.

"We all know from personal experience that some people appear to be more prone to lapses of attention than others," said Nilli Lavie, a professor at University College London, in a press release. "At the same time, we know that inattention and distractibility characterize people with a clinical diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. This led us to hypothesize that there might be an attention-distractibility trait that all of us have to some degree, and the clinical end of the spectrum is seen as ADHD."

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In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, 174 healthy adults completed computerized tasks.

Participants were asked to search brief computerized displays for one letter among a circle of letters, pressing a key when they found it. In about 25 percent of the tasks, a well-known cartoon character with no bearing on the test would appear, with researchers measuring how much the image slowed their responses. After the tasks, the participants were asked to complete a self-measure of their ADHD symptoms in childhood.

The results of the tasks and surveys showed levels of distractibility were linked to the participants reported ADHD symptoms in childhood, with a statistical correlation holding for all participants between level of distractibility and ADHD symptoms.

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One link between all participants, regardless of childhood symptoms or levels of distractibility, was the more difficult a task, the less they were distracted by the cartoon character. This, the researchers said, suggests more complicated tasks are one way to mitigate how easily somebody is distracted.

"The discovery of an attention-distractibility trait is important because attention serves as the gateway to all information processing," Lavie said. "A high level of the attention-distractibility trait is likely to have an impact on a person's educational and job performance, as well on their ability to focus on daily activities and tasks, such as reading."

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