Active Listening Delays Attentional Disengagement and Saccadic Eye Movements

Brief Report


Successful goal-directed visual behavior depends on efficient disengagement of attention. Attention must be withdrawn from its current focus before being redeployed to a new object or internal process. Previous research has demonstrated that occupying cognitive processes with a secondary cellular phone conversation impairs attentional functioning and driving behavior. For example, attentional processing is significantly impacted by concurrent cell phone use, resulting in decreased explicit memory for on-road information. Here, we examined the impact of a critical component of cell-phone use—active listening—on the effectiveness of attentional disengagement. In the gap task—a saccadic manipulation of attentional disengagement—we measured saccade latencies while participants performed a secondary active listening task. Saccadic latencies significantly increased under an active listening load only when attention needed to be disengaged, indicating that active listening delays a disengagement operation. Simple dual-task interference did not account for the observed results. Rather, active cognitive engagement is required for measurable disengagement slowing to be observed. These results have implications for investigations of attention, gaze behavior, and distracted driving. Secondary tasks such as active listening or cell-phone conversations can have wide-ranging impacts on cognitive functioning, potentially impairing relatively elementary operations of attentional function, including disengagement.


Visual attention Attentional disengagement Cognitive load Dual task Mental workload Distracted driving 



We thank Cathleen Moore for use of the eye-tracking equipment and Nicole Jardine for technical support. This research was funded by a grant from the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC), Detroit, Michigan, and in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS 11-51209).


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of NeurologyUniversity of Iowa Hospitals & ClinicsIowa CityUSA
  2. 2.Exponent IncPhoenixUSA
  3. 3.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesUniversity of IowaIowa CityUSA

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