Attention distraction and task interruption in applied settings (2012 – present)

Getting distracted by irrelevant information and thus being interrupted in an ongoing task is an omnipresent situation in daily life. In particular in applied settings, a variety of interfering factors occupies the limited cognitive resources.  My existing research focuses on related effects in multimedia learning and mobile interaction contexts and employs both experimental research and computational cognitive modeling. Current work turns these insights into a training approach that can strengthen attention control skills in everyday life.

Learning material on factor analysis with seductive text passage (displayed in Wirzberger & Rey, 2018, p. 249)

Attention distraction in multimedia learning (2012)
My first project in this area of research focused on constraints arising from impaired attention in multimedia learning settings. In a task on factor analysis, attention impairments were included by distracting system-notifications, e.g., update messages, and interesting but irrelevant (so-called “seductive”) text passages that are used to foster motivation. Both features have a high prevalence in computer-based learning environment. To assess learners’ individual level of attention control, I used the FAIR-2, a standardized psychological attention inventory. The results showed that irrelevant information extended the learning time. Furthermore, learners with higher levels of attention control could cope better with system-notifications and achieve increased learning performance.

Shopping list application with interruption (displayed in Wirzberger & Russwinkel, 2015, p. 149)

Interruption and resumption in a Smartphone task (2013 – 2014)
In a second project, I used a shopping list application to investigate cognitive processes related to interruption and resumption in a real-world scenario. Interruptions occurred due to product advertisement, and task difficulty was increased when shopping had to be done for more than one person. On methodological accounts, I used the cognitive architecture ACT-R to develop a computational model of underlying cognition and validated the emerging pattern with human experimental data. In particular the final product recall indicated a good fit between model and human data. Future directions involve the exploration of beneficial resumption strategies for different user groups and situations to incorporate them in assistive systems.

Hyperlink in spatially separated format (see Wirzberger, Schneider, Dlouhy, & Rey, 2017)

Can hyperlinks interrupt schema acquisition? (2016 – present)
Hyperlinks became indispensable in our digital age and are an inherent feature of many computer-based learning environments. On the positive side, they can foster deeper understanding, but on the negative side they might also impair the construction of coherent mental models. To explore this duality further, we investigated selected hyperlink features with interrupting potential. In more detail, we manipulated link loading times, spatial link format and fit between link and learning page contents in a learning task on metabolism and energy generation. Even if we could not observe crucial impairments in performance in our first study, the inspected features required increased cognitive resources to compensate for the related demands. We can take this as promising hint to further explore these features in different settings.

Attention control training “in the wild” (2018 – present)
Strong attention control skills can prevent harmful effects of distraction. To foster these skills, a joint project with the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems resulted in a computer-based training app. This app provides metacognitive feedback on the value of exerting attention control when people distract themselves from a self-chosen task. Contrary to existing approaches, it turns daily life settings into a gym for the mind to achieve stable and sustainable skill acquisition. We evaluate the training in different settings (e.g., school, university, workplace), where the participants use the app over a defined period of time during work or study activities. From the obtained human data, we can develop cognitive models that predict the development of attention control skills.

The presented research was conducted collaboratively by the Software Workshop and the Rationality Enhancement Group at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen, Germany, with kind support from the Cyber Valley.
This screen cast gives an impression of using the software.

Related publications

  • Wirzberger, M., & Schwarz, M. (accepted). Förderung selbstregulierten Lernens durch ein KI-gestütztes Training [Promoting self-regulated learning with an AI-based training]. Bildung und Erziehung. [PREPRINT]
  • Wirzberger, M. (2021). ACTrain@School: Can we bring AI to the classroom to foster self-regulated learning?. In EARLI 2021 – Online. [PDF]
  • Wirzberger, M., Schneider, S., & Rey, G. D. (in revision). Exploring the interrupting potential of spatial separation, temporal delay and unrelated content in educational hypertexts. [PREPRINT]
  • Wirzberger, M., Lado, A., Eckerstorfer, L., Oreshnikov, I., Passy, J.-C., Stock, A., Shenhav, A., & Lieder, F. (2020). How to navigate everyday distractions: Leveraging optimal feedback to train attention control. In 42nd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. [ABSTRACT] [POSTER]
  • Wirzberger, M., Oreshnikov, I., Passy, J.-C., Lado, A., Shenhav, A., & Lieder, F. (2020). ACTrain: Ein KI-basiertes Aufmerksamkeitstraining für die Wissensarbeit [ACTrain: An AI-based attention training for knowledge work]. In 66th Spring Conference of the German Ergonomics Society. [PDF]
  • Wirzberger, M., & Rey, G. D. (2018). Attention please! Enhanced attention control abilities compensate for instructional impairments in multimedia learning. Journal of Computers in Education, 5, 243-257.
  • Wirzberger, M., Schneider, S., Dlouhy, S., & Rey, G. D. (2017). Time – Space – Content? Interrupting features of hyperlinks in multimedia learning. In T. Goschke, A. Bolte, & C. Kirschbaum (Eds.), Abstracts of the 59th Conference of Experimental Psychologists (TeaP) (p. 97). Lengerich: Papst Science Publishers.
  • Wirzberger, M. (2014). Smart@load? Modeling interruption while using a Smartphone-app in alternating workload conditions (Master thesis, TU Berlin). [PDF]
  • Russwinkel, N., Prezenski, S., Lindner, S., Halbrügge, M., Schulz, M., & Wirzberger, M. (2014). Modeling of cognitive aspects of mobile interaction. Cognitive Processing, 15(Suppl. 1), S22-S24.
  • Wirzberger, M., & Russwinkel, N. (2014). „I don’t need it“ – Modeling ad-induced interruption while using a smartphone-app. In Crosswolds 2014: Theory, Development and Evaluation of Social Technology, Chemnitz.
  • Wirzberger, M., & Rey, G. D. (2013). Attention impairment in multimedia learning: Does initial task attention act as moderator?. In F. Schwab, A. Carolus, M. Brill, & C. Hennighausen (Eds.), Media Psychology: Media Research: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Proceedings of the 8th Conference of the Media Psychology Division of the German Psychological Society (p. 11), Würzburg: University of Würzburg.
  • Wirzberger, M., & Rey, G. D. (2013). Inducing impaired attention within the seductive detail effect: Do already distracted learners suffer more?. In U. Ansorge, E. Kirchler, C. Lamm, & H. Leder (Eds.), Abstracts of the 55th Conference of Experimental Psychologists (p. 314), Lengerich: Pabst Science Publishers.
  • Wirzberger, M. (2012). Experimentelle Induktion beeinträchtigter Aufmerksamkeit im Kontext des seductive detail Effekts [Experimental induction of attention distraction within the seductive detail effect] (Bachelor thesis, University of Hagen). [PDF]