Sept. 6, 2022

How media consumption impacts your daily train of thought

New research by psychology doctoral student Chelsie Hart looks at how general news media impacts internal thought processes throughout daily life
media consumption
Pexels photo by Stanley Ng

Have you ever wondered if the media you consume throughout the day impacts your everyday train of thought? A recent study by Chelsie Hart, doctoral student in the Internal Attention Lab directed by Dr. Julia Kam in the Department of Psychology, shows that news consumption is related to more task-unrelated thoughts (TUT) throughout the day. A TUT refers to when people’s thoughts drift away from their current task towards some internal train of thought — usually drifting towards things that are concerning to them.

For her research, Hart, along with her collaborators, conducted two studies surrounding news media and TUTs. The first study focused on the impact of news related to the COVID19 pandemic, whereas study 2 focused on consumption of news media in general.

Hart spoke with UToday about her research and what the two studies found.

Study 1

Q: How was study 1 conducted?

A: In study 1, participants were sent four surveys every day at random times for 10 days. These surveys asked about what participants were doing and thinking about just before receiving the survey, specifically whether their thoughts were “task-unrelated” or “task-related.” Basically, if you were writing an email but realized while you were writing that you were actually thinking about your plans for the weekend, you were having task-unrelated thoughts.

Additionally, we asked participants if they had consumed news media related to COVID-19 in the two hours before receiving the survey. This lets us look at whether patterns of task-unrelated thought were related to taking in COVID-19 news.

Q: What were your major findings?

A: The major finding here is that when participants reported that they had consumed COVID-19 related news, they also reported having task-unrelated thoughts more than when they did not take in any COVID-19 news

Q: Was there anything you found surprising?

A: Our results mostly made sense. We were going off the theory that task-unrelated thoughts tend to be related to things we are concerned about, and if you were reminded about something concerning, like COVID-19, it would make sense for you to have a hard time focusing on your current task.

Study 2

Chelsie Hart

Chelsie Hart

Q: Were you always planning to do a second study or was this brought on by your findings in the first study?

A: We weren’t planning on doing a second study at first, but when we wrote up study one for publication, the reviewers made comments that made us rethink things. They wanted more proof that taking in news media was associated with more task-unrelated thought. It also made sense for us to extend our results to news in general, since COVID-19 news was becoming less prevalent.

Q: What were the major differences in your findings between study 1 and study 2?

A: The main difference between study 1 and study 2 was that we asked about news consumption in general in study 1, rather than focusing on COVID-19 related news like in study 1. However, the results between the two studies were the same: news consumption was related to more task-unrelated thought.

Q: Was there anything you found surprising with the second study?

A: Again, the results weren’t really surprising, but they replicated our first study and point out how our effects weren’t just because the news was focused on COVID-19. It seems like the news generally covers concerning topics.


Q: Is there anything individuals can do to gain better control over TUT occurrences?

A: Well, I’m biased, but our study shows that you’ll probably have more task-unrelated thoughts after you take in the news. But this isn’t to say you shouldn’t keep up to date on current events. Just consider when might be the best time for you to take in some news. Task-unrelated thought isn’t always a bad thing. For difficult and important tasks, it can be distracting and lead to errors; but task-unrelated thought has also been associated with creativity and future planning. So, maybe watch the news when you know the next tasks you’ll be doing are not ones that you need a lot of focus for, or tasks that may benefit from a little task-unrelated thought.

Q: How much news would you recommend someone watch to avoid TUTs?

A: Again, I don’t want to say you should avoid task-unrelated thought altogether, but you might want to stay focused on certain tasks. To do this, you might consider when you take in the news rather than “how much.” You might also think about what the news is about, in terms of whether the story is particularly concerning to you and might distract you later. Arguably, you’re probably more likely to find something to be concerned about if you watch the news all the time though.

Q: Is there a specific time that is best for individuals to consume news?

A: This depends on what your schedule looks like. It might be better for you to take in some news after work, if you aren’t doing anything particularly involved later in the day. Or maybe news in the morning works for you instead if you might not start doing really demanding tasks until later in the afternoon.