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Effects of goal-setting on sustained attention and attention lapses

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In three experiments, we examined the effects of goal-setting on sustained attention and attention lapses. We measured both behavioral task performance and subjective attentional states during a four -choice reaction time task (Experiments 1 and 2 administered online; Experiment 3 conducted in-person). Experiment 1 compared a vague goal versus a specific goal. The specific goal reduced lapses in the form of long response times (RTs) but did not impact task-unrelated thoughts. Experiment 2 expanded on E1 by making the specific goal progressively harder. Behavioral lapses (i.e., long RTs) were reduced in the harder-over-time goal condition compared to the control condition. Additionally, while RTs increased with time-on-task in the control condition, RTs in the harder-over-time goal condition remained stable with time-on-task. Experiment 3 aimed to replicate the results of E2 in-person and adjusted the difficulty of the harder-over-time goals to be slightly harder. The results largely replicated E2. Overall, setting specific and difficult task goals led to a reduction in lapses of attention and increased sustained attention performance.

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Correspondence to Deanna L. Strayer.

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Open Practices Statement

This study was not preregistered and the data will be made available on the Open Science Framework.

Author Notes

This research was supported by Office of Naval Research grant N00014-22-1-2083.

Public Significance Statement

Our ability to sustain attention is critical in a number of everyday tasks. In the current study we demonstrate that setting specific and difficult goals leads to a reduction in behavioral lapses of sustained attention and a reduction of time-on-task effects. Theoretically, specific and difficult goals result in participants allocating more attentional effort to the task that helps sustain attention and mitigate lapses. These results further our understanding of lapses of attention and potential ways to curb lapses.



Table 2 Comparison of p-values and effect sizes before/after using an analysis of covariance to covary out goal commitment

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Strayer, D.L., Robison, M.K. & Unsworth, N. Effects of goal-setting on sustained attention and attention lapses. Atten Percept Psychophys (2023).

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