6.2 How Divided Attention Affects Multitasking

Jan 13, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch6 Attentional Processes & Theories

In this video lesson, you will see how multitasking results in divided attention. You will then see how this divided attention results in poorer memory and less learning.

Divided Attention

Meet John. He is a teenager going to high school. When he gets home every day, he turns on the television to his favorite after school program ,and then he takes out his homework. He wants to do both at the same time so that when he finishes his television program, he will also be done with his homework. Then he can go and play with his friends. When he is watching his television program and doing his homework, he has what is called divided attention. He is giving attention to two or more tasks at the same time.


By doing two tasks at once, John is trying to multitask. To multitask means to do two or more tasks at the same time. When John is multitasking, he has divided attention. John is not able to give either activity his complete and undivided attention. He cannot fully watch his program, and he cannot fully pay attention to his homework. How does this affect John? Let’s find out.


At the end of week, John’s teacher gives him an unexpected pop quiz. How does John do? John finds himself staring blankly at some of the test questions. He can’t remember what he learned this past week. He remembers part of the television program he watched, but he is having trouble remembering what he did with his homework.

The teacher told him that all of the questions on this quiz are coming from the homework this past week. John is getting upset with himself because he knows he did all his homework, but he just can’t remember how he solved the problems. John wishes he wouldn’t have tried to watch the television program and do his homework at the same time. He looks back and realizes that because he is not giving full attention to his homework, his brain isn’t able to process what he is learning. As a result, John’s grades suffer.


Ah yes, by giving divided attention to his multitasking, John has learned a lesson the hard way. Divided attention while multitasking is negatively affecting his learning. He doesn’t remember much, and he isn’t able to build on what he already knows.

John decides that from now on, when he is doing homework, he won’t be anything else. He will give his undivided attention to doing his homework. He doesn’t want to feel like he did on the day of the pop quiz. To help him succeed, he plans on working only on homework for 15 minutes, then taking a minute or two to do something else, and then going back to the homework for another 15 minutes. He will repeat this work, break, work cycle until he finished his homework. The breaks in between will give John the motivation he needs to stay on task for those 15 minutes.

Multitasking Research

We have just seen how John performs while multitasking. This topic of divided attention while multitasking is of great interest to scientists. Some people think that they can get more accomplished while multitasking, but what scientists have found is that almost no one can truly multitask. You are either working on the one task or the other.

In fact, when most people try to multitask, the tasks that they are working on suffer. In one study, scientists found that when people listen to music while driving, it decreases their focus on driving by 37 percent. That’s quite a decrease. You can see how much easier it is for the driver to get into an accident.

Researchers have conducted many variations of tests on multitasking ability, requiring people to attend to a primary task and a secondary task, then testing for memory on the first task. These tests affirm that learning is affected by multitasking.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review what we’ve learned from John. Divided attention is giving attention to two or more tasks at the same time. To multitask means to do two or more tasks at the same time. You have divided attention when you are multitasking. Unfortunately, divided attention while multitasking negatively affects memory and learning. Less information is retained and processed when multitasking.

6.3 Change Blindness: Definition & Examples
6.1 Attention as Part of Cognitive Development: Definition & Process