Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Work-related situations that can lead to DAF

Work-related situations that are dangerous or demand extra vigilance are obviously draining. So are working long hours, doing presentations, attending conventions, being in graduate school, or working in a company that is in trouble or being downsized.

1. Jobs that are dangerous
Danger is an interesting attentional issue. We talk about dangerous living environments elsewhere, but dangerous work has another dimension.

We seek out the riveting nature of danger when we go mountain climbing, or racing, or sword fighting, and may actually be resting our Directed Attention system.

But with dangerous work, finding that excitement is usually not the goal.

Our brains are built to deal with dangerous natural physical activities such as such as moving, fighting, and escaping. We become totally focused. We don’t need to force ourselves to concentrate—we don’t even see distractions. The ancient fascination system takes over, and our brains are as sleek and smooth as lions on the prowl. Often, there is no call for Directed Attention at all. We experience what Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow”, although that term may now imply more purpose and meaning than we are talking about here.

This points up part of the difference between passively experience danger, doing active work involving danger—or doing work despite danger.

People who live in dangerous places have to experience danger no matter what—they have no choice.

People who seek out dangerous work, on the other hand, at least have the benefit of grappling with the danger—some of these jobs can be extremely engaging, including emergency medicine, spying, mountain climbing, racing, street police work, and work with animals.

When we are involved in dangerous activities and running under Fascination, or Involuntary Attention, we may feel frightened, stressed, or unhappy, we may even get injured, but in such recreational activities, we have the superb advantage of choice. For whatever reason, we want to be there.

However, when we have a dangerous job, many other things come into play. We usually have set hours. We often have social issues. We are frequently in situations not matched with our interests or competence. The dangers may be multiple and unpredictable. The dangers may be distracting us from what we have to do. And we often do not have the security of choice.

In addition, we may have to concentrate in specific attention-draining ways in the midst of danger—we have to decide if this action violates rule 258. Or how will this look to the public. Or if, by being too gung-ho, we might make others look bad. As police officers can attest, this kind of thing can have severe attentional costs.

2. Jobs that demand extra vigilance and other factors above
While dangerous jobs often require vigilance, it is also a factor in many non-dangerous jobs. Developing film requires vigilance, working on a factory line, driving long distance, stake-outs, watching for certain behaviors, and hospital nursing are some of the jobs where vigilance is required. Maintaining that focus despite distractions uses up directed attention.

3. Working long hours
Staying with any single line of activity, even the most fascinating, for too long will require the use of directed attention. Humans are by nature multipurpose creatures, and we do not do well if forced to uni-task excessively.

4. Attending conventions and other work events
A wide variety of events related to work call for increased concentration--or a struggle against boredom. If we have to sit through a lot of long lectures, interact with strangers in a strange setting while trying to look professional, stay up late and get little sleep—these are all a recipe for attention fatigue. There is even a term for the fatigue, depression, and loss of focus people may feel after a big convention-- “Post-con syndrome.”

And any big focused work effort can drain attention--we may be carried along by social forces and interest, but crash at the end because of DAF.

5. School
Dangerous high-stress jobs are not the only work that can drain attention. Even the seemingly sheltered academic life can do it.

If you think about it, we all know this. Third graders know this. And probably too many kids have trouble in school because of this. We now recognize the kids diagnosed with ADHD, but normal fluctuating attention patterns can play a big part in how children, as well as adults, concentrate and learn and deal with social situations.

As we mature, out attention system matures, and we generally learn how to use it better. But the demands we make on it increase also.

In general, the kind of concentration required to get through college and graduate school is unusually high. It can be so high that some people are permanently damaged by it, and go into politics. (That was a joke, I think.) Students can come to hate their thesis topic so much they go into another field, or at least can’t stand to even think about their topic for a period of time. It is not unusual for students to hit a wall toward the end of professional school, and some places, typically medical schools, even have counselors to help students make it through.


We can often predict which kind of work will have higher Directed Attention demands, but specific aspects of jobs and work situations can complicate matters.

Kaplan, S. and R. Kaplan (1982). Cognition and Environment. New York: Praeger. Republished 1989 by Ulrich’s, Ann Arbor, MI.

Kuo, F and Sullivan, W.(2001). Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment via Mental Fatigue, Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33, No. 4, 543-571


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© 2006-2008 S. Beadle
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