How urban living affects attention

February, 2013

A comparison of traditional African villagers and those who have moved to town indicates that urban living improves working memory capacity even as it makes us more vulnerable to distraction.

Another study looking into the urban-nature effect issue takes a different tack than those I’ve previously reported on, that look at the attention-refreshing benefits of natural environments.

In this study, a rural African people living in a traditional village were compared with those who had moved to town. Participants in the first experiment included 35 adult traditional Himba, 38 adolescent traditional Himba (mean age 12), 56 adult urbanized Himba, and 37 adolescent urbanized Himba. All traditional Himba had had little contact with the Western world and only spoke their native language; all adult urbanized Himba had grown up in traditional villages and only moved to town later in life (average length of time in town was 6 years); all adolescent urbanized Himba had grown up in town the town and usually attended school regularly.

The first experiments assessed the ability to ignore peripheral distracting arrows while focusing on the right or left direction of a central arrow.

There was a significant effect of urbanization, with attention being more focused (less distracted) among the traditional Himba. Traditional Himba were also slower than urbanized Himba — but note that there was substantial overlap in response times between the two groups. There was no significant effect of age (that is, adolescents were faster than adults in their responses, but the effect of the distracters was the same across age groups), or a significant interaction between age and urbanization.

The really noteworthy part of this, was that the urbanization effect on task performance was the same for the adults who had moved to town only a few years earlier as for the adolescents who had grown up and been educated in the town. In other words, this does not appear to be an educational effect.

The second experiment looked at whether traditional Himba would perform more like urbanized Himba if there were other demands on working memory. This was done by requiring them to remember three numbers (the number words in participants’ language are around twice as long as the same numbers in English, hence their digit span is shorter).

While traditional Himba were again more focused than the urbanized in the no-load condition, when there was this extra load on working memory, there was no significant difference between the two groups. Indeed, attention was de-focused in the traditional Himba under high load to the same degree as it was for urbanized Himba under no-load conditions. Note that increasing the cognitive load made no difference for the urbanized group.

There was also a significant (though not dramatic) difference between the traditional and urbanized Himba in terms of performance on the working memory task, with traditional Himba remembering an average of 2.46/3 digits and urbanized Himba 2.64.

Experiment 3 tested the two groups on a working memory task, a standard digit span test (although, of course, in their native language). Random sequences of 2-5 digits were read out, with the participant being required to say them aloud immediately after. Once again, the urbanized Himba performed better than the traditional Himba (4.32 vs 3.05).

In other words, the problem does not seem to be that urbanization depletes working memory, rather, that urbanization encourages disengagement (i.e., we have the capacity, we just don’t use it).

In the fourth experiment, this idea was tested more directly. Rather than the arrows used in the earlier experiments, black and white faces were used, with participants required to determine the color of the central face. Additionally, inverted faces were sometimes used (faces are stimuli we pay a lot of attention to, but inverting them reduces their ‘faceness’, thus making them less interesting).

An additional group of Londoners was also included in this experiment.

While urbanized Himba and Londoners were, again, more de-focused than traditional Himba when the faces were inverted, for the ‘normal’ faces, all three groups were equally focused.

Note that the traditional Himba were not affected by the changes in the faces, being equally focused regardless of the stimulus. It was the urbanized groups that became more alert when the stimuli became more interesting.

Because it may have been a race-discrimination mechanism coming into play, the final experiment returned to the direction judgment, with faces either facing left or right. This time the usual results occurred – the urbanized groups were more de-focused than the traditional group.

In other words, just having faces was not enough; it was indeed the racial discrimination that engaged the urbanized participants (note that both these urban groups come from societies where racial judgments are very salient – multicultural London, and post-apartheid Namibia).

All of this indicates that the attention difficulties that appear so common nowadays are less because our complex environments are ‘sapping’ our attentional capacities, and more because we are in a different attentional ‘mode’. It makes sense that in environments that contain so many more competing stimuli, we should employ a different pattern of engagement, keeping a wider, more spread, awareness on the environment, and only truly focusing when something triggers our interest.


[3273] Linnell KJ, Caparos S, de Fockert JW, Davidoff J. Urbanization Decreases Attentional Engagement. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance. 2013 .

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