Faculty Q&A: Psychologist Malia Mason Focuses on Attention

Pay attention to Malia Mason. She’s certainly paying attention to you. An associate professor at Columbia Business School, she examines how people regulate their attention—or don’t—and what implications that may have for students, managers and employees.

Bridget O'Brian
June 28, 2017
headshot of malia mason dresed in a gray short sleeved blouse

She got into the field in graduate school by, appropriately enough, following her own wandering mind.

Few people focused on the field before 2007, when Science magazine published her dissertation, “In Search of a Mental Default Mode: The Psychology of Mind Wandering.” From there, her interest in the subject led her to research management and the human brain, and the challenges the mind encounters as it tries to make the most of its resources.

“I think like a psychologist, and I sometimes use brain imaging to answer questions that I have,” said Mason, who received her Ph.D. in social psychology from Dartmouth— which in 2000 was the first liberal arts college in the U.S. to install a functional magnetic resonance imaging device, or fMRI, for research on everything from how the brain is organized to the concept of free will. Mason started her studies there only weeks later, and was able to use it for dozens of experiments.

She used the fMRI to tackle a question about the brain’s “default network,” which is active when a person is day-dreaming, at rest or doing a simple task. She had study subjects memorize letter sequences five days in a row until they could recite them from memory. Then she added a new sequence. Using an fMRI scanner, she demonstrated that the subjects’ minds wandered far more often when they recited the wellrehearsed sequences than the new one, to which they had to pay closer attention because the information was unfamiliar.

“I was able to make the case that the default network is associated with self-generated material, a key source of distraction,” she said. “Our mind spends a lot of time and energy distracting itself with information that it is generating.”

Mason joined Columbia in 2007, after two years as a postdoctoral fellow studying cognitive neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. She is among scores of faculty members across the University, as well as at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute in Manhattanville, who study issues of the mind and the brain.

At the business school she teaches managerial negotiations and works closely with its doctoral students. She still studies mind wandering, as well as a second research interest centered on social perception, which focuses on “economizing strategies,” or the social assumptions people make when they negotiate with or manage others.

Q. How did you come to study mind wandering?

A. There really wasn’t much research about it. My sense of the literature that discussed attention was that it presupposed that distractions originate in the external environment, and that didn’t jibe with my personal experiences. When I catch myself “off task” it’s usually because I am distracted by something my own mind produced. Assuming my experience isn’t unique, this implies that we know very little about how the mind goes about regulating itself and resisting distractions.

Q. Why does the mind wander?

A. The term “mind wandering” suggests these are random thoughts. But my research shows that our mental meandering may not be so arbitrary or especially idiosyncratic. For instance, it is often about things that are unresolved—what we need from the grocery store, an unfinished dissertation, a disagreement we had with a friend that remains unsettled. Basically, our minds have a penchant for wandering to things that we care about, but that remain unfinished. And I think there are some upsides to having a mind that tends to do that—it means these things will remain “top of mind.”

Q. We’re often told that today we live with the most distractions ever. Do we?

A. I think that when we have a free moment there’s an increasing tendency for people to look to the external world for some entertainment with email, social media and other interruptions. That said, I think that we’re pretty good at figuring out just how little we have to think about something and how much of our mental resources we can spend thinking about other things. I have no problem thinking about how to approach a statistical analysis while I am chopping parsnips, for instance. How are we able to judge what’s a sufficient investment of our attention with any accuracy at all? I find that fascinating.

Q. What’s the purpose of self-created distractions?

A. So many of the tasks we do on a daily basis—brushing our teeth, following a conversation in meetings—don’t require our full attention. It appears that the mind tries to spend no more of its resources than absolutely necessary on a current task. Attention is a resource that you can’t bank, you spend it or you lose it. Having an intrusive thought about an intention when it cannot be realized seems to be counterproductive. But the chances that you act on it later increase dramatically when you’ve thought of it before you can act on it. Our mind wandering plays a self-reminding role.

Q. You’ve studied what students’ minds do as they work on laptops. How do you measure that?

A. With their permission, we installed software called Rescue Time on their laptops, which tracks which window is active on a computer screen at any moment—a Word document, then Facebook or YouTube. So I could tell what they were doing, for how long, when they switched among activities or wandered away from their computers. After a month we asked the students how much time they thought they spent on each application, and then we asked again after a second month and tested them to assess their ability to measure their own attention and focus.

Q. What did you find?

A. The primary goal of the project was to try to understand why people misallocate their time and attention. We found that students on average spent 17 percent of a 24-hour period on their laptops. That’s about four hours, and that doesn’t even count what they do with their phones. When we went back to find out which activities they said were productive, almost two hours of that wasn’t crucial to work or to school—about 9 percent. Even they realize they spend too much time on Facebook. On a scale of 1 to 7 for rating pleasure, the students gave Facebook a 6.1.

Q. Your other research focuses on social perception. Can you explain what that is?

A. We work in a world that requires us to work with other people every day, whether it’s buying a cup of coffee or formulating a corporate strategy. So this line of research involves identifying and understanding economizing strategies—shortcuts, really—that the mind uses to make sense of other people. What assumptions are people making about the causes of behavior they observe in others? How do they influence our own? These have big implications for negotiations or leadership because the assumptions that people draw about others matter. I’m working on a project now about how leaders who deliberate before making decisions tend to lose influence, because people assumed their deliberation was caused by incompetence rather than thoughtfulness or the complexity of the decision.

Q. How does knowing this help in negotiations and management?

A. The causes for events in a social world must be inferred. To understand others’ behavior we have to reverseengineer underlying motivations, beliefs and feelings. You can think of these inferences as informed guesses. Several of my papers illustrate how the mind organizes its experiences with its own narratives about what people are assumed to know or not to know, and why this matters. Negotiators converse, that’s how they negotiate. My research with my colleague, Daniel Ames, shows that the mind tends to go beyond what is said by making assumptions that shape the final agreements. Using precise numbers in a negotiation—$5,115 versus $5,000, for example—suggests to the other side that the negotiator has more knowledge or is more informed about what’s at issue. That’s an example of the mind’s tendency to go beyond what is said.

Q. Do you have a favorite project at the moment?

A. One of my current studies is about the functional significance of fidgeting. It’s another way of understanding how attention works. Fidgeting and restlessness are considered symptoms of attention problems. With this project we are asking, is fidgeting really just a symptom or does it have some functional significance? Fidgeting’s effect on performance was specific to people who like to do it. Is it possible that people are fidgeting because it helps them to selectively attend to what needs to be done and ignore competing demands for their attention?

Q. What is your hypothesis on fidgeting?

A. My view is that there is a baseline level of energy that needs some kind of outlet, and fidgeting is a way to channel it. We do a test where we ask participants to listen for certain information in a long audio clip. Half of them have a fidgeting toy while the rest are asked to rest their hands on a desk, which we assumed would be bad for fidgeters. We found that people with a fidgeting habit can ignore irrelevant information and pay attention to the relevant stuff when they’re allowed to fidget; that was specific to fidgeters, not everyone else. When they couldn’t make these restless movements, they take in lots of information that is irrelevant to what they’re trying to do. So there’s a reason why people fidget, but so far we haven’t nailed down the mechanism behind it.

Q. Are we doomed to be forever distracted?

A. Economists for years have used surveys to assess what people do with their time. It turns out people spend a good amount of it looking for stuff—keys, remote controls, that book you want to read. Often we lose things because we’re not paying sufficient attention when we put them down and then can’t recall their whereabouts. But from what I’ve studied our distractibility has not changed markedly over time, we just have more ways to spend it on non-essential things.