Tag Archives: multitasking

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Where Was I?


To the question “Where was I?” a common reply is that we were probably “peripherally processing:” tuning out most that was said. 

[A 2018 essay on a very helpful theory of message reception got the basic model right. But in hindsight I discovered that I didn’t more thoroughly consider how our busy lives force us to sacrifice the rewards of being fully engaged with a single challenge. Drifting away from a person’s words now seems like the norm. I suspect we only have the required discipline at peak moments of focus when we know that something important is on the line: everything from two pilots in a cockpit reviewing contingencies prior to what will be a difficult landing, to a journalist getting just one shot to ask a newsmaker a question. Too infrequently do we engage in this kind of critical awareness.  Here’s an updated version of that piece with two key terms from a theory that offers useful language to access whether a receiver is fully engaged on a single task.]

Occasionally an idea in communication comes along that provokes the realization that it would not be possible to live without it. Good theories can help us see what is right in front of us. So, it is with a set of observations that fall under the name of Elaboration-Likelihood Model. The name might be a little off-putting. But as a framework for insights about how messages are likely to be received by others, the model is golden. It has been enormously helpful in various branches of the social sciences. We are in the realm of the theory when we wonder how we missed seeing or hearing a message that came our way.  To the question “Where was I,” the answer is probably that you were focused on a challenging task or, more likely, tuning out most everything that came your way. Not paying adequate attention is a modern affliction.

                Elaboration Likelihood Theory

The framework first proposed by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo proposes that we think about the reception of messages as coming via one of two general pathways. Messages that are “centrally processed” are, by definition, the kinds that trigger a whole set of critical responses. These are claims and ideas readers or listeners think about. Their engagement means that they are more inclined to assess these assertions against what they know. Their beliefs or behaviors have been put into play and may change.

The model assumes that serious attempts at advocacy or involvement must gain a strong foothold in our consciousness. Those messages that get scant attention are said to be “peripherally processed.”  A message like an advertisement or a casual request from another may wash over us quickly. We are not especially interested or motivated to hang on every word. And, as you would guess, the message is not likely to produce significant or lasting change. It has not created an impression that sticks.

All of this may seem more or less obvious. But considering how much a person or audience cares is a worthwhile question. It asks if you can trigger enough attention and interest to have a chance at producing real effects. As labels, “Peripheral” and “Central Processing” are good ‘top-of-mind’ concepts. Keep them in your head as you parse out the amount of energy you want to invest in sending or receiving a message.

The model’s relevance increases every year as Americans recede into ever-deeper waters of message overload. We simply weren’t made to attend to what is now a routine exposure to many hundreds of messages every day.  We may deceive ourselves into believing that we can multi-task and accurately consume all that is thrown at us. We can’t. Truth to be told, we’re not good multitaskers. Peripheral processing means that we will miss too much to feel bound by a specific request.  It’s antidote is active listening. 

Watch a skilled grade schoolteacher manage a class and you will see a survivor who knows that active listening and central processing are essential and hard won. It takes time, repeated attempts, aa lot of eye contact and follow up. When we get older, we are our own bad actors by endlessly staring at phones and multitasking. As we’ve noted before, none of us are good multitaskers. Multitasking is the gateway to incorrect directions, missed messages, misunderstandings and, finally, a growing frustration of being disconnected from people that matter.

Another person’s attention may be essential. But it is not easily given.

When you find yourself saying to a friend our spouse “I mentioned it yesterday; I’m sure I said it” we are likely recalling something that mattered much more to us than the person who was supposed to be listening.  And, while we can get frustrated at the other’s inattention, we also need to cut them the slack by recognizing that communicating with a peripheral processor is a bit like shouting in the forest. The people close by may look like they have heard us. The Elaboration Likelihood model reminds us to have some doubts.

There’s also an interesting twist here. Someone who is fully engaged with their own thoughts—critically thinking them through—may not have much time for another’s extraneous conversation. Albert Einstein was supposedly forgetful. Was this was because he was engaged in the challenges of playing out the nuances of major insights like the theory of relativity? By now it is a cliché for an author to construct a character like the absent-minded professor:  intensely focused on one thing, yet unable to take in the verbal clutter around them. That’s my excuse, even if no one no one lets me get away with it. But you can see the irony here: peripheral processing might be one consequence of central processing. The more we are locked into exploring a singular idea, the less we may be available to adequately receive the messages of others.

Of course, the model is more nuanced than I have presented. Wikipedia has a more complete overview of it. And models with only two reference points need to accommodate the likelihood of various gradients. But anyone who wants to break through the crust of a peripheral processor can start by considering several recommendations. First, repeat what you deem important. A tactful rewording of the message that you want another to retain may help. Second, give the peripheral-processing “forgetter” some slack. To deal with every message that comes to us is not possible. If we tried to do it, we would need a mental health intervention. To be sure, another person’s attention may be expected. But the requirements for sanity in an over-communicated society mean that it can’t be easily given.  Finally, as a receiver, practice central processing. Repeat what you heard someone else describe.  Take notes. Ask questions.  Do whatever is required to fully give yourself over to their message.

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Our Fragmented Consciousness

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How can we keep our focus when our informational world has paced almost everything at hyper speeds?

By definition, a distraction is a detour. It happens when the continuity of some effort is broken by the need to shift attention elsewhere. Since this website is dedicated to communicating in “the age of distraction”—be it advertising clutter, too many texts and e-mails, or the frenetic pace of overscheduled lives—we should have an interest in persons who resist all the cultural noise.  For the record, the problem isn’t entirely new. The ballad “Over The Rainbow” (1939) was initially cut from the Wizard of Oz because some bright light in the studio’s front office thought that it slowed things down.

The Advantages of Linear Thinking

One answer to this problem is to discipline ourselves to follow a more linear pathway, even though cultivating this kind of thinking cuts against the grain of the culture.  And it’s not easy to tell the world to take a hike while we muse alone in our own self-made bubble.

Linear thinkers take many forms:  avid readers content to devote large chunks of time to a single work of fiction or non-fiction, artists happily left alone to work through decisions that will end up on canvass or as musical notation.  We’ve enshrined the image of the “mad scientist” as a loner following the threads of their research with long hours in the lab, leaving family and friends to fend on their own.

If previous generations were more focused, our Twitter world is more scattered.  The folks that track these things indicate that the average American checks his or her phone nearly 100 times a day. Much of American television is predicated on breaking for a range of short commercials: so many, in fact, that a viewer can momentarily forget what they were watching.  And the programs themselves are edited to the beat of a fast song, with shooting angles and cutaways coming every few seconds. Fast cutting, where camera changes may happen every two seconds, is in style.  The long single ‘take’ is relegated to a few auteur film directors who are willing to gamble that an unbroken shot can be interesting.

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Linear thinking is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find.

George Frederick Handel wrote the great oratorio Messiah in spurt of nearly unbroken concentration, finishing in just over three weeks.  And imagine the sustained effort required by William Lamb’s architectural firm, who designed and prepared drawings for New York City’s Empire State Building in an incredibly short two weeks. The iconic skyscraper was completed in just over a year.  Such dedication to a single task can be scaled down to what many writers sense when they notice the time that vanishes when they are absorbed in their work.

The linear thinker routinely does what many vacationers hope for: a chance to clear the decks of everyday clutter sufficiently to see an unobstructed view of the horizon. Undisturbed concentration gives them power.  It may happen when we are walking, watching a sunset, or perhaps sitting alone on a boat dock with nothing else to distract.  These are the realms of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find. Unbroken attention allows a first effort to build on the synergies that begin when scattered thinking begins to see connections and consequences that others may miss.

The Mistake of Pushing Complexity Out of Bounds 

This is the reverse of the kind of segmentation of effort that is now embedded in our work and so much of our media. A reader’s time on a single web page is usually under a minute.  And we are getting cues from all over that we’re not noticing our preference for hyper-compression. Consider, for example, the New York Times reporter who recently noted in passing that an individual “argued” a point “on Twitter.”  Really?  Can a person “argue” in the traditional sense of the term—which includes asserting a claim and its good reasons—in a verbal closet of fewer than 500 words?  Twitter imposes absurd limitations on the expression of a complete idea, and is easily matched by political ads that “argue” public policy in 30-seconds, television news “sound bites” from policy-makers that average around eight seconds, and the de-facto editing style of commercial television that cuts individual shots down to lengths of two or three seconds.  All of this means that there is no time for enlarge on the complexities of issues or attitudes.

We now think of a Ted Talk with a maximum running length of 18 minutes as an “in depth” discursive form. No wonder some of my students thought of a 70-minute lecture or a 40- page chapter as the functional equivalent of a long slog across a vast and empty space.  All of this makes our dawning recognition that reading levels are falling even more worrisome.  One of the great virtues of juvenile and adult literature is that the process is still mostly linear. Like the rest of us, kids are easily hooked on continuous and sequential narratives.

Sherlock Holmes wikimedia
           Sherlock Holmes

Interestingly, one of the features sometimes seen in a person at the higher end of the autism spectrum scale is a consuming and total passion for one thing. Subjects on the spectrum are especially known for their laser-focused interests, making them a challenging fit in a culture that rewards frequent pivots to completely different activities.  But the habit of extended attention can be a blessing.  Psychological historians believe we can thank mild forms of autism for the achievements of Mozart, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll.  And it is surely the dominant psychological trait of the world’s favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

Given the misplaced importance of multi-tasking across the culture, it makes sense that there is building interest in novel  ideas like the self-driving car. Negotiating a ribbon of open road is a literally a linear process that seems increasingly beyond the capacities of many drivers. It’s probably better to let a computer take care of a task that many aren’t mentally equipped to manage themselves.

One small suggestion for moving back to a state of extended consciousness on one thing is to pick a major orchestral work or favorite writer, making it a point to ‘swim’ in their waters for more than a few minutes.  The trick is to not take on another task for an alternate source of attention. You will hear or see more.  The hard truth is that thinking well about a subject needs effort and concentration.

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