Low-Load vs. High-Load: How Distractions Really Affect Your Studying Habits

By Olivia Arnold and Ashley Gottardo

The transition to college can be a rough period for most students, ripe with a new school, new friends,  and a new sense of independence. Through all of these new experiences one realizes many areas of their life change in ways they didn’t expect- namely in their approach to studying. This is more of a forced change, and in order to succeed you will likely have to actively make it on your own. Lucky for you, we’re here to explain what areas may benefit the most from change, help you cope with your changing study habits, and give you tips for how to succeed in college.

Many people don’t realize how different tasks can take up different amounts of your brain’s processing abilities. The perceptual load theory of cognitive processing explains these differences.

According to this theory, your brain has a  processing capacity, which is
defined as the amount of information you can take in
at any
given moment. (1) Some tasks, those termed as low-load tasks, take up small amounts of this capacity. Those taking up most or all of the processing capacity are called high-load tasks. (1) For example, doodling all
over your Cognitive Psychology notes during class would be
considered a low-load task, whereas taking an advanced calculus test is a high-load task.





Researchers Forster and Lavie discussed perceptual load in the context of one’s attention. They conducted a study in which subjects were shown a display of letters, representing either a low-load or a high-load task.

Low-load displays were easier to process because the letters surrounding the target (M) were all the same. High-load tasks had different letters surrounding the target (G), making the target difficult to find. The results showed the low-load tasks had faster response times than the high-load tasks, meaning you process easier problems faster.(1)

They then showed subjects screens similar to those shown above, but now added a distracting stimulus- another letter outside of the circle to the left or right.

The response times for identifying the target letters in these new trials showed differences from the results of the trials without the distracting stimuli. The easier tasks with distractions had a larger change in response time than difficult tasks with distractions. (1) This indicates that when one is performing an easier task, they are more likely to be distracted than when performing a more difficult task.

Another focus perceptual load and distraction includes the idea of selective attention in that selection operates early in high-load tasks and late in low-load tasks. The load theory of selective attention uses two mechanisms for selective control of attention. The first of these mechanisms is perceptual selection. This acts to exclude distractions under high-load tasks. The second mechanism is attentional control.  It is used to reject distractions that have been received under low-load conditions. This theory explains that “processing load of the relevant task determines the extent to which irrelevant distractors are processed” (5).

Researchers Lavie and Cox were able to show that an irrelevant distractor failed to capture the attention of someone working under a high perceptual load when compared to someone working under a low perceptual load. (4) This goes to show that perceptual load is a necessary condition for selective attention. This load theory of selective attention says that high-load tasks use up all the available resources for prioritized relevant processing. This way, irrelevant information remains unattended and is eventually excluded from any and all processing.

So, why is all of this relevant to your studying habits in college? Well, it’s much easier to find distractions on a college campus than it would be throughout high school. You control whether or not you’re doing your homework, and the majority of the time no one is checking up on you to make sure you’re doing it. Knowing there is a relationship between easier tasks and distraction will no doubt help you determine how to complete a task. This has to do with your future study habits because, again, you are more prone to distraction when completing a low-load task. It is important to be cognizant of your surroundings. Just being aware of the fact that you are more likely to become distracted when you are finishing easier homework will help you to be able to prevent those distractions from taking place. You should also be aware that you can create the distractions for yourself, and you might not even be meaning to. Working on more than one assignment at a time, or even multiple parts of a larger assignment for the same class, can challenge your selective control of your attention, and lower your processing capabilities. (2) It helps to find a quiet spot in the library to knock out all of your work without distraction. Then afterwards you can grab dinner with friends or have a movie night with your roommate rather than trying to multitask.

Another big problem students face in college is that of sleep. You no longer have people telling you to get your sleep or when to go to bed, so naturally you feel like you can stay up all night, which can be considered a distraction of its own, and not worry about how this may affect your grades. However, it’s been proven that sleep deprivation can have serious consequences on your mind’s ability to process information.

In a study conducted by Kong et al.  subjects were put through two stages- one where they got the proper amount of sleep, and the other in which they were sleep deprived. They were then shown a series of faces on elaborate backgrounds and asked if the faces appeared more than once. Those that were sleep deprived had fewer correct responses when compared to those in the rested group. The researchers concluded that sleep deprivation has a significantly negative impact on your visual processing abilities. (3)

What does this mean? We’ve heard it a million times and rolled our eyes thinking “I’ll be just fine”…but take it from us, GET SOME SLEEP!

In the end, college is an absolute blast! Don’t let us scare you into thinking you too underprepared. Implement some of the tips and tricks we mentioned, and you’ll be acing those tests in no time!


(1) Forster, S., & Lavie, N. (2007). High Perceptual Load Makes Everybody Equal: Eliminating Individual Differences in Distractibility with Load. Psychological Science, 18(5), 377-381. Retrieved from http://0-www.jstor.org.libus.csd.mu.edu/stable/40064625

(2) Kong, D., Soon, C. S., & Chee, M. W. L. (2011). Reduced visual processing capacity in sleep deprived persons. NeuroImage, 55(2), 629-634. doi:http://0-dx.doi.org.libus.csd.mu.edu/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.12.057

(3) Forster, S., & Lavie, N. (2009). Harnessing the Wandering Mind: The Role of Perceptual Load. Cognition, 111(3), 345-355. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027709000614

(4) Khetrapal, Neha. (2010). Load theory of selective attention and the role of perceptual load: Is it time for revision? European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 22(1), 149-156. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1080/09541440902787014

(5) Benoni, H., & Tsal, Y. (2013). Conceptual and methodological concerns in the theory of perceptual load. Front. Psych., 4(522). Retrieved from http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00522/full

4 Replies to “Low-Load vs. High-Load: How Distractions Really Affect Your Studying Habits”

  1. Thank you for this post! I really appreciate all the good information on studying habits. I especially liked how you explained why the distractions occur, and then explained HOW to prevent this from happening with concrete examples. I also really enjoyed the animations because they were neat and easy to understand.
    –Rachel Bagha

  2. As someone who has difficulty studying due to ADD, I am no stranger to distractions. Thank you for your post, it was very enlightening on how something so small can act as a distractor when studying.

    I would be interested in reading into how music can affect studying. I have previously read that extroverts are more likely to listen to music and do other stimulating activities while studying than introverts. This is because introverts are more sensitive to sensory stimulation and are therefore satisfied with relatively less stimulation than extraverts. I would be curious to see how these effects play out differently in people who are considered introverted or extroverted.

  3. I find that so true, that I often get so much more distracted when I am doing a task that is easy, rather than hard. I never really stopped to think about why this is, but it makes sense! I also like how you touched on how important sleep it- I’ve definitely had to learn that the hard way freshman year. Your blog was really easy to understand and will be very appropriate for general audiences, all while still giving enough empirical evidence. Good job!
    -Annie Clark

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