What is Continuous Partial Attention?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The concept of continuous partial attention was coined by a researcher named Linda Stone, who first began her work on the idea while working for Microsoft. She noted that many people in the technology industry tended to work with a split focus, concentrating on a top level item while also receiving partial input from a variety of other sources. It is different from multi-tasking, where people perform several tasks at once.

Continuous partial attention is different from multi-tasking, although the ability to do both is needed in some professions.
Continuous partial attention is different from multi-tasking, although the ability to do both is needed in some professions.

You can probably think of a few examples of continuous partial attention in your own life. For example, you may have noticed that social events are often interrupted with ringing cell phones, incoming text messages, or email coming in on hand-held devices. Some people find this offensive, being irritated when people interrupt a conversation to answer a cell phone or deal with a text, while others don't seem to mind, especially among the younger age group.

Someone engaging in continuous partial attention may feel the need to check their cell phone for messages when at a social gathering.
Someone engaging in continuous partial attention may feel the need to check their cell phone for messages when at a social gathering.

According to Stone, the cause of continuous partial attention is a desire to not miss out on anything. At a party, for example, someone may scan the crowd to ensure that they don't miss someone they want to see, just as an executive at a meeting checks email to see if a better deal is on offer for a product under discussion, or as teenagers text each other in class. Some people feel that this type of attention is simply the modernized form of not paying attention at all, with people focusing on too many things at once to do justice to any one thing.

The cause of continuous partial attention is a desire to not miss out on anything.
The cause of continuous partial attention is a desire to not miss out on anything.

Stone noted that 18-25 year olds seemed to be champions of continuous partial attention, perhaps because they were raised in an environment and culture where it is not only encouraged, but expected. She also provided numerous examples from the corporate world, where some companies now confiscate communication devices at the door in meetings to avoid the problem of partial attention.

Some believe that continuous partial attention is a modernized form of not paying attention at all.
Some believe that continuous partial attention is a modernized form of not paying attention at all.

Some people view continuous partial attention as positive, arguing that it increases flow and allows people to work more effectively. Others feel that it is less positive, contributing to stressful, high-geared lifestyles which can lead to health problems, as stress has been linked with a number of health issues, from weight gain to dandruff. It may also make workers less efficient, or reduce the quality of someone's work, depending on his or her work pattern. Critics who view split attention as a problem have also coined another term, “continuous partial friendships,” to describe the sort of relationships that some people have with each other in the age of continuous partial attention.

Continuous partial attention may help contribute to a stressful lifestyle.
Continuous partial attention may help contribute to a stressful lifestyle.
People who view split attention as a problem may question modern teenagers' abilities to form strong social relationships.
People who view split attention as a problem may question modern teenagers' abilities to form strong social relationships.
Stress has been linked with a number of health issues, including dandruff.
Stress has been linked with a number of health issues, including dandruff.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon291514

Both CPA and multitasking cause stress to your nervous system. Typically, any one task performed mindfully and without judgment, does not.

anon106846

A better name for this would be "externally induced ADD" or "technological ADD" because the description of this is the nearly the same as someone who has ADD. Someone who has ADD has a hard time concentrating on just one thing because they are internally programmed not to ignore any stimulus. Thus, an ADD person is continually only paying partial attention to the task at hand if there is anything else going on around them (or even if any other thoughts pop into their heads).

If any of you non-ADD folks can relate to what the author of this article is talking about--continuous partial attention--then you can understand what an ADD person deals with all the time.

anon23177

how to eradicate this problem ...its true that we as a youngsters often face this..

anon14701

It seems the youthful world is geared to this sort

of thing. I think it is just a way to block out

creative thinking. As an artist and writer I'm aware of what is involved with creating any work. All environment must be sandwiched together for the best work, enter Van Gogh's landscapes, or the homes of master composers. Sometimes their spouse was at

force to even keep the noise of the children down lest it interrupt their father's work.

leilani

Frankjoseph - I think you can think of the difference based on the different motivations. When multi-tasking you are doing two things at once to get more done. You aren't even necessarily paying less attention to one thing. If, say, you are talking on the phone while folding laundry, you aren't necessarily providing partial attention to either. Perhaps technically, but not really.

The motivation for continuous partial attention (cpa - i'm sure certified accountants love the similarity ;)) is to *not* miss out on something. Typically, with cpa, I think you are juggling things that require more attention than folding laundry, or stirring the spaghetti sauce. So cpa means you aren't focused enough on the task at hand. Well, typically anyway.

frankjoseph

Wait, how exactly is this different from multi-tasking? If you're doing more than one thing at once, aren't you giving partial attention to those things?

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