Field of Science

New Experiment: Ignore That!

**UPDATE Apparently the examples below didn't display correctly on some computes. I think this is now fixed.**

It can be very hard to ignore irrelevant information. I personally can't work when there is music with English lyrics playing (overheard conversations are difficult, too, so I don't often work in cafes, at least not without ear plugs).

There are a number of classic studies in psychology looking at our ability to ignore distracting information. For instance, suppose that you are asked to identify which direction the arrow in the middle of the sequence below is pointing:

<--  <--  <--

You will typically do that faster and more accurately than you would for the sequence below:

<--  -->  <--

Even though the first and last arrow are irrelevant, they distract you and lead to incorrect responses. The original study (to my knowledge) to demonstrate this effect -- using a slightly different method involving letters rather than numbers -- was Eriksen & Eriksen's 1974 paper cited at the end of this post. 

White Bears

Another classic study is the "White Bear" study from Daniel Wegner and colleagues. Do the following: For the next five seconds, try not to think about a white bear. 

This turns out to be very difficult to do. Although in general you probably rarely think about white bears, when asked not to do so, it becomes nearly impossible.

A new experiment

I recently posted a new experiment -- Ignore That! -- at, which investigates another classic "mental control" phenomenon. In it, you will try to answer, as quickly and accurately as possible, which color a word is written in. For instance "hello" is in red. This seems simple enough, but add some distracting information, and it becomes quite difficult. (There are actually two parts to the experiment -- one part uses color and the other uses the direction of an arrow, but both get at the same phenomenon.)

The experiment takes about 5 minutes or less. At the end, you will be able to see your own results and find out just how distracted you were by the distracting information. 

Try the experiment here:


Wegner, D., Schneider, D., Carter, S., and White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53 (1), 5-13 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.53.1.5

Eriksen, B., and Eriksen, C. (1974). Effects of noise letters upon the identification of a target letter in a nonsearch task Perception & Psychophysics, 16 (1), 143-149 DOI: 10.3758/BF03203267

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