The nature and measurement of sustaining attention over time: The influence of cognitive ability, internal distraction, arousal, and motivation on sustained attention

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Tsukahara, Jason S.
Engle, Randall W.
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It is evident that it takes a great deal of effort to sustain our attention on any one thing over a period of minutes or even seconds. This ability to sustain attention is critical for many everyday tasks and is often seen as a fundamental factor underlying differences in cognitive ability. Therefore, it is important to understand the factors that determine how long we can voluntarily sustain our attention. Across two studies I used a novel task, the sustained attention- to-cue task (SACT), to assess sustained attention. The critical element of the task is to sustain attention at a cued location for a variable amount of time (0 – 12 seconds). In Study 1, I investigated how individual differences in cognitive ability are related to sustained attention. I found that those higher on attention control showed less of a decline in performance the longer attention had to be sustained. However, sustained attention performance was not related to working memory capacity or fluid intelligence. In Study 2, I investigated how susceptibility to distraction, changes in arousal, and motivation are related to sustained attention performance on the SACT. Overall, there was a large decline in attention on a shorter timescale based on performance, eye gaze, pupil size, and mind wandering measures. There were no changes in attention at a longer timescale, however there was strong evidence that arousal declined over the course of the task. Reward and motivation lead to improvements in attention overall and motivation led to improvements in sustained attention at a shorter timescale. In general, these findings suggest that attention can fluctuate and wane over a relatively short time scale of around 10 seconds or less and that this is related to individual differences in attention control, distractibility, arousal, and motivation.
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