Distractibility — a boon or bane for memory encoding

Our life would be far more productive and useful if we could focus on a particular task and get it done without any distractions, isn’t it? We generally hear teachers tell their students, “ Don’t get distracted. Pay attention to your work.” A common complaint from parents about their children is that they get distracted easily. In that sense, distraction is truly our enemy that we all try to combat it through various means. We try to keep things that grab our attention out of the way. It definitely takes a predominant amount of self-control to refrain from checking out cell phones every 5 minutes. What if distraction actually served a purpose in some cases?

A research study in 2017 has stated that distractibility may apparently have some interesting advantages. In the study, it was found that in a visual search task, memory for the target was better when multiple distractors were present as compared to a single distractor. This, they claim may be due to effortful and selective attention that is directed towards finding the target amongst multiple distractors, which leads to a better encoding of the target.

Distractibility can be of two forms- One is a general form of distractibility where distractors are unwanted stimuli in the vicinity of the target. This general form of distractibility causes attention to be divided amongst these distractors. Another is a specific form of distraction, where the similarity between the target and distractor causes a conflict in the allocation of attention between the two. Coming back to the study, it was found that in the single distractor case, participants found it easier to locate the target as compared to the multiple target condition. Then why this counterintuitive result stating that increasing distractive elements can increase the encoding of target better?

Let us all first understand that when we look at something, we do not compute its shape, color, and other attributes and then try comprehending what it is. When we look at something, we immediately know the meaning of it. Through experience, we have learned to separate out the episodic content (When did I first see it? and Where did I see it?) and directly retrieve the semantic content of the object. When we have a single distractor, competing for attention, there are more chances for conceptual overload. That is, we understand the meaning of both the target and the distractor which inhibits selective encoding of the target in memory. On the other hand, in the multiple distractor condition, there is an effortful, inhibition of multiple, irrelevant stimuli. This makes sure that the target stimulus alone is encoded relatively stronger in memory.

That is an interesting finding, isn’t it? How this can be applied in real life would be an even more appealing question. Is that why multiple-choice questions are highly trending, as the answer (target) is one among the multiple choices (distractors)? And do students really learn better when they look for the answers among multiple choices? Let us think about it!


Nussenbaum, K., Amso, D., & Markant, J. (2017). When increasing distraction helps learning: Distractor number and content interact in their effects on memory. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 79(8), 2606–2619.

Putting a creative spin on things, is what I do!