Getting the Most Mileage from Your Mental Fuel

Years ago, I heard the metaphor, mental fuel, used to refer to attention. I found it appropriate because like gas tanks, our cognitive thought processes hold a limited amount of fuel, and we can determine how quickly we use the fuel, depending on our driving habits. Research has proven that

  • we can determine which mental tasks receive the most fuel (attention)
  • rehearsed or learned tasks will require less fuel resources (attention).

Research has not confirmed, although highly speculative, multiple tasks can be performed in parallel versus flipping back-and-forth between tasks, and some tasks require a consistent amount of attention, regardless of the situation or other tasks involved (Willingham, 2007).

What about driving and talking? The question remains does our attention flip flop, yet go unnoticed, especially with experienced drivers? Probably so, since the experienced driver may not be giving 100% of their attention to either task. Don’t forget, memory also plays a part. We have practiced certain scripts to the point they no longer present much cognitive load (mental strain).

Research in the mid-1990’s demonstrated that auditory and visual tasks were interlinked and that one could not be compromised without affecting the other. Nevertheless, it was found that two auditory tasks caused more interference than an auditory and visual task. Perhaps, this helps explain why we can drive down a familiar road and chat with a friend, but incessantly get frustrated when talking on the phone, while someone is asking questions in our other ear! Remember, differences attract, and likenesses repel, or at least for attention mileage.

~ Dr. Michelle Doscher

For more information on cognitive processes, check out Daniel Willingham, along with Willingham, D. B. (2001). Cognition: The thinking animal. New York: Prentice Hall. 2nd edition (2004). 3rd edition (2007).


May I Have Your Attention Please

Cognitive interviews are often preferred because of the explicit information attained. An interviewer will typically focus on temporal and spatial questions to elicit this information. So, once your interviewee’s descriptive verbiage begins, how do you know if you are receiving completely accurate information?
Ramp up the cognitive load and the verbal and nonverbal deceptive cues will emerge! Whoa, not so fast. What if your interviewee is completely comfortable telling tall tales? Requesting temporal and spatial details may not trigger extra cognitive load. They may rely on

established schema or rehearsed scenarios to dilute the effects of extra mental strain.
However, splitting their attention may do the trick. Diverge from maintaining eye contact and flip flop around with questions that do not seem to follow a normal sequence. This split-attention effect will make relying on schema more difficult and “new” scenarios will need to be created, for those interviewees with deceptive tendencies. In turn, cognitive load will be induced and deceptive cues will emerge.
What about interviewees telling the truth? This technique will also induce mental strain, but most truth tellers usually respond to cognitive load with less descriptive and shorter answers. If they receive positive feedback from the interviewer, the cognitive load will also be lessened. Unlike the deceptive interviewee, the truthful interviewee is not pressured to monitor feedback, verbiage, and possible deceptive cues.