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Are the Stereotypes True: The Effects of Divided Attention Declines in Older Adults on Every Day Activities

November 14th, 2022 No comments

Have you ever seen a meme or a video that depicts older adults not being able to drive, not being able to walk, not being able to remember things, or not being able to focus. These types of media are very present in our lives today, and are reflective of many of the stereotypes that surround older adults in our society today. But, have you ever taken a second to think about why these stereotypes exist, and why we are so quick to believe them? In other words, are there actually age-related changes or declines that older adults are experiencing that impact their ability to walk, drive, remember, or perform any other daily function, or is it just stereotyping of older adults that create these perceptions in our minds about how older adults perform on these tasks? Research about cognitive aging has provided us with insight into how our brain and cognitive functioning changes as a result of getting older, and how this in turn influences performance on a daily basis as we age. The field of cognitive aging is very wide, and research encompasses a wide variety of topics, including memory, perception, attention, language, prior knowledge, and much more. Additionally, a wide variety of theories have been carefully developed and researched to provide explanations for the declines that we see in older adults as they age. Although everyday functions for older adults such as driving, walking or memory could be influenced by declines in a wide variety of areas, present research about divided attention declines in older adults provide significant insight into how decline in divided attention impacts a variety of every day functions for older adults.

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How Automatic Driving Impacts Driving Performance Overall

May 2nd, 2022 No comments

Have you ever felt as though you were driving and you can’t remember it? You might have known that you were driving and thought you were paying attention to the road but you can’t actually remember seeing anything, and maybe didn’t even remember where you were going? In other words, did you feel as though you were driving on automatic, and you didn’t actually have to pay attention to what you were doing? This happens to people quite frequently, and has probably happened to you at least once or maybe many times that you can remember. In fact, Burdett, Charlton & Starkey (2016) found that drivers reported that they practice mind wandering in their day to day driving ‘at least occasionally,’ expressing just how common it is for people to attend to other things while they are driving and not actually pay attention to the road. Maybe you have never crashed before while you were ‘driving on automatic’ but doesn’t it seem unsafe and problematic that we aren’t actually paying attention when we are doing something as precarious and tedious as driving? Do you think driving on automatic affects the ability to see and recognize things in our field of vision such as pedestrians? Do you think it would affect our reaction time if we need to stop quickly for something that runs in the road that has potential danger to you? More generally, do you think that driving on automatic can make people dangerous drivers if they aren’t actually paying attention to what they are doing?

Asking questions like these are very important for understanding how driving on automatic truly impacts us and our driving ability. Recent research in the field of cognitive psychology and even more specifically research with a focus on attention while driving has been conducted to answer these very questions. Before getting into the research and what the results say about drivers who drive automatically, it’s important to look at two major processes that are at play when one is driving on automatic, or isn’t actually attending to their driving while they are doing it. First off, when saying driving on automatic, it’s important to understand what an automatic process itself is, and how it relates to driving. Automatic processes are things that we do in our everyday lives that are usually done effortlessly, fast, require little attention and are for tasks that we have had a lot of practice or experience doing such as driving. Other examples of automatic processes include reading, writing, or a pro baseball player catching a fly ball. Just like these things, driving can become an automatic process for most people and can contribute to people driving on automatic. When talking about driving, it is also important to understand what the direct opposite of automatic processes are which are controlled processes. Controlled processes are things that we do for newer tasks or things that we have not frequently practiced and require more effort and attention to complete them. We perform controlled processes in our lives everyday just like automatic processes, like when we try a new activity, learn new things, or for driving specifically, when we are first learning to drive or when we are driving in new places or in areas that are not familiar to us therefore we have not practiced driving on them.

Second, a phenomenon called inattentional blindness is important to define before looking at the research that has been conducted to answer these questions about ‘driving on automatic.’ Inattentional blindness is a phenomenon that occurs when people are actually blind to things in their field of vision because their attention is on something else. A famous study about inattentional blindness revealed that many people did not see a guerilla walk across their field of vision because they were actually paying attention to something else. When we are driving, especially when it becomes an automatic process that has become effortless for us that we don’t use a lot of attentional resources for, it is easy for us to focus our attention on something else and not on the road in front of us. For example, maybe we are listening to the radio and focusing on singing a song opposed to the road in front of us. Maybe we are thinking about what we are having for dinner and not attending to our driving. Maybe we are focusing on a conversation we are having with a passenger in the car. Whatever it is that has our attention, it can cause us to not actually attend to the road in front of us. When our attention isn’t actually focused on driving or the road in front of us, it can cause us to miss things that are in our field of vision that we might be looking at but don’t actually see or attend to. In other words, we might be looking at something while driving but have no memory of actually seeing it because we are focusing on it because our attention is actually elsewhere, like in a conversation with a passenger.

Now that those two terms are defined, it is easier to understand what researchers have found about driving on automatic, and how it affects how well or safely people drive. Much of the current research about people ‘driving on automatic’ looks at how driving on familiar roads (roads that people consistently drive on) affects how well people drive, or specific aspects of their driving performance. This means that researchers look at how driving on familiar roads, which is an automatic process because people become experienced or practiced with this action and can do it both effortlessly and with little attention, affects our performance on specific driving tasks or measures such as reaction times to slow down and many others. Let’s look at some examples of how psychologists have determined how driving on automatic affects how well people drive.

First off, let’s look at how driving on familiar roads affects how well we attend to and react to things in our field of vision while we are driving. Yanko & Spalek (2013) found that people who drove on familiar roads and therefore were more likely to drive in automatic were slower to stop at a car that pulled in front of them as well as pedestrians that walked out in front of them than people who were not on familiar roads and therefore were not driving on automatic, and therefore were performing a more controlled process where they had to pay more attention to the road in front of them and out more effort into driving because they were unfamiliar/unpracticed with driving on that road. Another group of psychologists had similar findings as they found that people who were driving on the familiar road and therefore were considered ‘experts’ had slower reaction times to stop at a construction zone and drove through the construction zone about 30 km/h faster than people who were not familiar with the road they were driving on when comparing both groups of people (Charlton & Starkey, 2011). In a similar study done by the same psychologists in 2013, people who drove on the same road for three months thought that they were driving on automatic as they were on often not thinking about their driving and considered themselves to be driving on autopilot. Additionally, these psychologists also found that people were less likely to detect changes in their field of vision such as changes in buildings on the road, or changes in pedestrian signs on that road as they became familiar with driving on the road and began driving more automatically (Charlton & Starkey, 2013). This tells us that when we drive on automatic, we will be slower to stop for things on the road that might be dangerous to ourselves or others, and we also will feel more comfortable going faster in situations where it might not be appropriate to do so just because we feel familiar and comfortable with the road we are driving on. Additionally, Young et al. 2018 found that people who drove on familiar roads spent less time looking at the road ahead of them than people who drove on unfamiliar roads, which tells us that not only do we miss things in our field of view if we are looking at them because of inattentional blindness when we are driving on familiar roads, but we also actually spend less time focusing our field of vision on the road ahead of us when we are driving on familiar roads more automatically, which either way impacts how much we see and attend to on the road in front of us when we are driving on automatic on familiar roads.

Looking at these findings and answering these questions about automatic driving can make us more aware of how common driving on automatic is, as well as the implications on driving performance that this action has. These findings can teach us the importance of being more aware and attentive when driving on familiar roads or in situations when we might drive on automatic or on autopilot because of the potential threat or impact that it has on our driving ability. The impact that driving automatically has on many aspects of our driving performance such as reaction times to stop, inability to detect important changes in our field of vision, or our overconfidence with speed can be very dangerous for both the driver or others, which is why it is important to know how common automatic driving is as well as the consequences of it so that we can more effectively falling into this trap.


Burdett, B. R., Charlton, S. G., & Starkey, N. J. (2016). Not all minds wander equally: The influence of traits, states and road environment factors on self-reported mind wandering during everyday driving. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 95, 1-7.

Charlton, S. G., & Starkey, N. J. (2011). Driving without awareness: The effects of practice and automaticity on attention and driving. Transportation research part F: traffic psychology and behaviour, 14(6), 456-471.

Charlton, S. G., & Starkey, N. J. (2013). Driving on familiar roads: Automaticity and inattention blindness. Transportation research part F: traffic psychology and behaviour, 19, 121-133.  

Yanko, M. R., & Spalek, T. M. (2013). Route familiarity breeds inattention: A driving simulator study. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 57, 80-86.

Young, A. H., Mackenzie, A. K., Davies, R. L., & Crundall, D. (2018). Familiarity breeds contempt for the road ahead: The real-world effects of route repetition on visual attention in an expert driver. Transportation research part F: traffic psychology and behaviour, 57, 4-9.

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