Home > Attention > City life: wonderful or distracting?

City life: wonderful or distracting?


Say you’re home for the summer and decide to take a walk downtown. What are you doing as your walk? Where is your attention? Is it on the people who are waiting to cross the street or the ones who just stopped in front of a store window? Perhaps it’s on the little one begging his parents for ice cream a few yards ahead of you or the shiny red convertible that is just passing by. Is your attention focused on what stores you are passing or are you watching where you are going?

What about when you’re studying for an exam in the library? Is your attention actually on your notes or is it really on your phone as you wait for a text? Have you really focused all of your attention on that o-chem problem or is part of you laughing at the antics of the group at the next table? Maybe part of your attention focused on the loud group just walking through the doors while another part is on your facebook page.

In everyday life there are so many things going on around you. There are so many things that you are aware of that you don’t even realize are taking your attention like what street you’re on or what color the storefront behind you is. Did you know that studies have actually shown that people in urbanized environments are less able to focus on a single task? Or that they are more likely to be processing everything that is going on around them instead of focusing on a single object?

K.J. Linell, S. Caparos, J.W. de Fockert, and J. Davidoff  wanted to know more. They wanted to know how urbanization, many people living and working together in close proximity, changes a person’s ability to focus on a single task. In order to do this they studied the effects of urbanization on the Himba, a people from a very remote part of Namibia. Some of the Himba now live in urbanized communities but many others still live the traditional cattle herding lifestyle in the open bush. Through a series of experiments Linnell et al. were able to give evidence that urbanization has an effect on a person’s ability to focus on a single task because it reduces the person’s ability to fully engage their attention on that one task.

The attention that is paid, consciously or unconsciously, to the objects around you and the distances between the objects or between the object(s) and you is called spatial attention and the first experiment done by Linnell et al. was done to see if urbanization caused spatial attention to become unfocused. Participants, traditional Himba and urbanized Himba, were first presented with a white screen containing only a central black fixation cross. They were then shown a stimulus like the one shown below for 220ms before the cross was presented again.

CogBlog image 1


The participants were asked to press one of two buttons as quickly as possible to indicate which direction the central arrow (shown above) was facing, something that is  more difficult to do when the central arrow is pointing in a different direction than the outside arrows. Each participant completed this task 480 times. In each trial either the distance between the central arrow and the outer arrows was changed or the vertical placement of the central arrow was changed. With each trial the degree of separation between arrows and the reaction time of the participants was measured. Their results showed that spatial attention was more focused in traditional Himba than in urbanized Himba.

A second experiment was performed exactly as the first except for that the participants were placed into four groups: traditional Himba with a high cognitive load, traditional Himba with a normal cognitive load as in the first experiment, urbanized Himba with a high cognitive load, and urbanized Himba with a normal cognitive load. The high cognitive load was added by having participants memorize three numbers before beginning the experiment and then having them repeat those numbers every couple of trials. The two groups with no added cognitive load showed that the traditional Himba had more focused spatial attention than the urbanized Himba. The two groups with the additional cognitive load, however, showed different results. In this case both the traditional and urbanized Himba had equally unfocused spatial attention. This experiment showed that by mimicking urbanization, adding information that required attention, the spatial attention of the traditional Himba became just like that of the urbanized Himba.

Many studies show that a person can only pay attention to and remember limited amount of things at any one time.  Based on these studies one hypothesis about the way urbanization effects attention is that urban environments deplete this attention and memory more than remote environments where there are less people. This would mean that an urbanized person’s ability to remember a span of digits should be worse than a person who lives in a remote area. A third experiment was run in order to test this hypothesis. Participants listened to a series of digits then were asked to repeat what they heard. Their accuracy was recorded and then a new set of digits was presented. The trials were repeated with varying numbers of digits. Results in this experiment did not support the initial hypothesis.

Another hypothesis that Linnell et al. tested was that increasing how involved or engaged attention is on a task would increase focus on that task meaning that if urbanized Himba were able to better engage their attention on the task then their focus would be like that of the traditional Himba. They tested this by repeating the task in experiment 1, this time using upright and inverted black and white faces instead of arrows, as shown in the images below.

CogBlog faces

Once the data was collected statistical analysis were run and the results showed that when the faces shown were upright the urbanized Himba were just as focused as the traditional Himba. However, while inverting the faces did not have an effect on traditional Himba it did have an effect on urbanized Himba in that it caused them to lose focus. These results support the hypothesis that urbanization decreases attentional engagement.

In order to make sure that the results of experiment 4 were not due to the fact that faces are a special case another experiment was run just like experiment 1 except that it replaced the arrows with faces turned to the left or right as shown below.

CogBlog Face 3

The results of this experiment were similar to that of experiment 1. This means that the results of experiment 4 were not due to the fact that faces were used but instead to the fact that urbanized people only use all of their attention when something is interesting.

Overall, the research done by Linnell et al. shows that urbanization decreases how much we focus our attention on any one task. It shows us that because there is so much going on around us we don’t really focus or engage all of our attention on any one thing. Honestly, I think that I see the same results these researchers say every day. Every time I study I know that, no matter how hard I try, my full attention isn’t on my notes or my text book. It’s why when I try to cook I don’t always add the right ingredient at the right time or I miss the timer going off. How about you, how much attention do you think you focus on any one task? And really, just how much of your attention was engaged in reading this blog and how much of it was focused on other things?

Reference: Linnell, K. J., Caparos, S., de Fockert, J. W., & Davidoff, J. (2013). Urbanization decreases attentional engagement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 39(5), 1232-1247. doi:10.1037/a0031139

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  1. December 3rd, 2013 at 23:37 | #1

    There are lots of studies around about the cognitive benefits of being in nature. I have a friend who read a study about how walking in nature before a test improves performance and now swears by taking a 20 minute walk in the Colby arboretum before every exam. I’m curious how research like that gels with the findings in this paper….are the effects of urbanization on attention ephemeral enough that a brief period of time in a more natural setting can reverse them?

  2. December 4th, 2013 at 00:06 | #2

    There are definitely more distractions in an urban environment, but I wonder how much of a factor the pace of life is. In addition to ambient noise and simply a greater degree of distracting stimuli across all 5 senses, living in a city also tends to speed up the pace of life. There are even differences between cities; I’ve lived in Hong Kong and Honolulu, which are both large modern cities, but things just seemed to happen much faster in Hong Kong across the board. There are a variety of cutesy ways to measure the ‘speed’ of a city, be it average walking speed, public clock accuracy or the amount of time it takes to order and receive a Big Mac.

    I would assume that the urbanized Himba live at a much faster pace than their rural counterparts. After all, cities are literally designed to facilitate this by concentrating people, resources and information in as compact a space as possible. I’d be curious to see if this fast pace is almost as much to blame on attentional deficits as the sheer amount of stimuli is. Going off that idea, I imagine that residents of a city with a faster pace of life would possess more severe attentional deficits than residents of a city with a slower pace of life. It would be interesting to see a similar study with comparisons between people living in different cities rather than with a binary urbanized/nonurbanized design

  3. December 9th, 2013 at 15:03 | #3

    You raise an interesting point. A lot of the research in this area focuses on urban vs. natural environments, but, as you point out, not all cities are created equal. It also seems that some urban environments integrate more green spaces or restful areas and this might moderate the effects.

  4. March 18th, 2014 at 22:44 | #4

    I found this article interesting and very relevant to material we have learned in class. We talked about capacity framework models, where there is a limited amount of resources allocated to attention, so if a lot of your attention is on one particular thing, there is less that can be used to attend to other things. In an urban environment like those in cities, it is highly likely that there will be many things that grab your attention and demand your attentional resources. It could be that individuals who have lived in cities for long periods of time are used to having attentional resources allocated to different things and therefore have difficulty in focusing the bulk of their attentional capacity on one object.

  5. Sara Heilbronner
    October 7th, 2014 at 20:29 | #5

    What an interesting post this is! I hadn’t really thought about the relationship between urbanization and attention before, but it does make sense that there might be a connection between one’s environment and one’s subsequent attentional engagement abilities.

    Linnell et al. set out to explore how urbanization might impact one’s ability to focus on or engage with any one task. All of the participants in the study were Himba peoples, an indigenous population from Namibia. Thus my first question in reading this post was: Why the Himba? What was/is it about this group of people that made them a good fit for the study? That they are from a very remote part of Namibia makes me question how the results of this study could be appropriately generalized to all urban settings. I thought that Dylan brought up an excellent point in his comment when he talked about the fact that there is great city-to-city variability. Because this is the case, would a sample population drawing from a broader range of urban (and rural, for that matter) settings have given the study a greater scope of coverage (thus giving it better external validity)?*

    The second experiment testing spatial attention abilities showed that the traditional Himba group with added [attention-requiring] cognitive load responded in the same way as did the urbanized Himba group with added cognitive load. To be honest, I was a bit confused by these results; don’t they in some ways contradict the overall conclusion of the study? Here is seems like it’s not necessarily urbanization itself/alone that leads to one’s decreased ability to fully engage attention toward one task. Rather, it seems (perhaps more simply/less specifically) that mere quantity of cognitive load leads to this decreased ability. In other words, might it be too sweeping a generalization to say that all urbanized settings result in this trend, rather than simply saying it’s the number of distractions in one’s environment that causes the trend?

    Part of what leads me to ask this question is the knowledge we have acquired about automaticity. We have discussed how, with diligent practice and repetition, processes that are controlled can eventually become automatic and more efficient. With this information in mind, might it somehow be significant to consider for how long participants have lived in either a rural or urbanized setting? In other words, is it possible that people who live in a city for a very long time could eventually develop skills that allow them to have a level of attentional engagement comparable to that of people living in more rural settings? Or are spatial conditions simply too different in each setting for any sort of the attentional engagement “expertise” seen in rural environments to evolve into/transfer over to expertise in an urban environment?

    Lastly, I’d be curious to see if there was any connection between gender and attentional engagement abilities. That is, do urbanized men and women vary in their ability to focus on any one task because of trends that might exist regarding what each sex pays attention to (and what corresponding amounts of attentional capacity are required of those things)?

    Let’s hope that urban dwellers are never faced with multiple life-death situations at once!

    *On second thought, I suppose that drawing from many different cities would introduce too many confounding variables into the study; after all, each city seems to have its own culture, its own “vibe,” so testing people from lots of different cities might end up causing more experimental trouble by creating even more variability. Designing controlled yet generalizable experiments definitely doesn’t seem like the easiest task!

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