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Research by Professor Deborah Burke Disproves Conventional Wisdom, Finding Older Adults Are Less Easily Distracted

Pomona College Professor of Psychology Deborah Burke

Pomona College Professor of Psychology Deborah Burke

New research from Pomona College has found that, contrary to a major theory of cognition, older adults are less easily distracted from an attention-demanding task than younger adults. While this sounds positive, the results could have quite serious, negative implications as well.

The findings were reported by Deborah Burke, professor of psychology at Pomona College, and Elizabeth Graham, a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University, in “Aging Increases Inattentional Blindness to the Gorilla in Our Midst” in the March 2011 issue of Psychology and Aging.

Burke and Graham tested two competing theories of cognitive aging, attentional capacity models and inhibitory deficit models, which make opposite predictions about the impact of age on susceptibility to inattentional blindness. Using the inattentional blindness paradigm developed by Simons and Chabris (1999), “gorilla in our midst, ” they tested 31 young adults (ages 17-22) and 26 older adults (ages 61-81).

Participants were asked to watch a 30-second video featuring three people wearing white shirts and three people in black shirts moving and passing a basketball to people wearing the same color shirt. Viewers are asked to count the number of passes of a particular team. The unexpected stimulus occurs halfway through the video when a person in a gorilla costume walks through the scene and is visible for approximately 10 seconds. After the video, participants were asked if they had noticed anything unusual. Young adults noticed the gorilla more often than older adults when focusing on the white team or the black team. Both groups noticed the gorilla more often in the black shirt condition.

According to Burke, “The claim that older people are very distractable because they allow their minds to be cluttered with irrelevant information is very prominent in psychology literature. The good news is that we found no evidence that older adults are more easily distracted. Instead they are very highly focused on their task.

“The bad news is that older adults failed to see an unexpected stimulus that is in their main field of vision for 10 seconds. On a practical level, this has some very serious implications. For example, if older drivers are concentrating on something else – talking to someone, listening to the news, reading traffic signs – they are many times more likely to fail to recognize or see an unexpected object in front of them.”