The length of an individual’s Attention Span has gotten an increasing amount of attention in the last several years, at least in part because of the fear that younger generations, particularly millennials or so-called digital natives, spend too much time focused on their mobile phones, other digital technology and social media apps, and not enough time focused on other endeavours, including training, work assignments and academic pursuits.
Some research shows not only that almost-uninterrupted attention to personal digital devices may have adverse effects on cognitive performance on non-screen tasks but also that unsafe behaviours occur in all demographic groups.
In the commercial air transport environment, aviation regulations have been introduced to prohibit the use of personal electronic devices by many safety-critical employees.
Attention span is relevant to all generations of aviation professionals in the following ways:
- Adhering to applicable regulations, policies and standard operating procedures on mobile phone usage. These are designed to avoid unnecessary operational distractions that could cause death, injury and/or aircraft damage in accidents and incidents;
- Obtaining adequate rest without unnecessary sleep disruption by personal digital devices; and,
- Moderating overuse of personal digital devices, even if use has not been prohibited. This enables aviation professionals to attend to learning situations, to apply risk-mitigation methods and to perform duties with their attention spans intact.
Guidance compiled by a European task force beginning in 2009 favors the term sustained attention, which is the “ability to direct and focus cognitive activity on specific stimuli for an extended period of time,” over the less precise but more commonly used term Attention Span.
In addition, flight crewmembers, cabin crewmembers, air traffic controllers and other aviation professionals should be familiar with three concepts closely related to sustained attention/attention span.
Controlled and automatic attention processes come into play when aviation professionals face new tasks and learning opportunities. “These processes require effort and are limited by short-term memory,” the guidance said. “With training, attention becomes more automatic; i.e., it requires less effort and is not limited by short-term memory.”
Alternating attention applies to situations in which an aviation professional switches attention between tasks that require different thought processes.
Divided attention applies to situations in which aviation professionals must conduct multiple tasks at the same time, and the tasks “compete” for limited attention resources. “This situation is often referred to as multitasking and can be very dangerous since attention resources are strained when an individual attempts to complete multiple tasks simultaneously,” the guidance said.
A book referenced in a related article, "Attention," similarly notes that cognitive psychologists have used the legacy term sustained attention (also called vigilance) in this context (i.e., it matches the core idea of attention span). The book also references resources, which refers to the brain’s capacity for information processing.
Here, sustained attention has long meant the ability to continuously maintain alertness. “In common parlance, we often say that someone has a ‘short attention span’ when he or she cannot maintain attention for long periods. Vigilance is important when a task must be performed non-stop and alternately ‘tuning in’ and ‘tuning out’ would be deleterious.”
By coincidence, the resources category considers attention to mean the effort required for the brain to perform specific information processing. “Such resources are required because our capacity to process information is inherently limited. Originally, these resources were assumed to be undifferentiated; that is, they are assumed to be the same,” the book said. Later theories argued that in the brain, “a limited set of distinct resource pools may exist, each of which can be applied to only certain types of [cognitive] processes” — suggesting that resources required may vary by task. (From Neuropsychology: The Neural Bases of Mental Function, by Marie T. Banich, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.)
Emerging Safety Issue?
It is difficult to find accidents and serious incidents involving “attention span” as a causal factor or contributing factor. In contrast, searches for “fatigue” as a factor typically will yield many safety events.
Arguably, accident reports citing fatigue infer, but do not prove, that an attention-span problem occurred — i.e., that crewmembers showed sub-optimal capability “to direct and focus cognitive activity on specific stimuli for an extended period of time.” Attention span apparently is not part of the taxonomy used to analyze the events searched.
Meanwhile, research on typical consumers’ heavy use of mobile phones and other personal digital devices — specifically, effects on their attention span at work or in school — could be a precursor of trends to which aviation professionals in safety-critical positions would be susceptible.
For example, a corporate white paper issued in 2015 by Microsoft Canada summarized results of a “gamified online quantitative” survey and neurological research methods on the attention spans of a sample of Canadian consumers. The study was sponsored by the company, and the white paper does not indicate whether it was peer reviewed.
The white paper primarily is intended to inform advertisers about factors to consider in marketing their products across multiple digital platforms. The researchers aimed to show analytical evidence for ways that digital media work — despite a consumer’s extensive hours of daily exposure to one or more digital screens (multi-screening).
The white paper said, “The goal for this research is to understand what impact technology and today’s digital lives are having on attention spans.” The methodology considered sustained attention, selective attention and alternating attention. The following highlights from the white paper are relevant from an aviation human factors perspective:
- “Overall, digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments.”
- “Multi-screening trains consumers to be less effective at filtering out distractions — they are increasingly hungry for something new.”
- In response to the question “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” 77% of respondents age 18–24 and 10% of respondents age 65 and older agreed.
- “At work or school, 44% of Canadians [respondents] really have to concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks; 45% get side-tracked from what they’re doing by unrelated thoughts or day dreams; and 37% don’t make the best use of their time so sometimes they have to work late or on weekends.”
- “Long-term focus erodes with increased digital consumption, social media usage and tech savviness.”
- “67% of Canadians [respondents] say multi-tasking is the only way they can get things done.”
- “Social media can drain one’s resources, reducing the ability to allocate attention, connect with content on an emotional level and process information.”