Reduced Distractibility in a Remote Culture

Dada Kind, modified 5 Years ago at 8/9/18 1:19 PM
Created 5 Years ago at 8/9/18 1:19 PM

Reduced Distractibility in a Remote Culture

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Variation in distractibility is widely reported in tasks requiring selective attention. Several groups within the Western population are more easily distracted by task-irrelevant information than healthy young Western adults; these include typically developing young children [1], children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [2], the elderly [3], [4], and schizophrenic patients [5]. Such distractibility in selective attention tasks is important and related to everyday absent-mindedness and failures of attention [6], [7]. However, no group has so far been demonstrated to be less easily distracted by task-irrelevant information than healthy young Western adults.

In the present study, we investigate differences in distractibility in a cross-cultural comparison between Westerners and a non-Western population, namely the Himba, for whom we make the novel prediction that they may be better than young adults from the Western population at resisting distraction. It is possible to give a historical basis for our prediction. In the 18th century, the idea that “primitive peoples” direct their attention to a small number of objects was widely circulated [8]. In more recent times, Jung [9] talked of the “astonishing concentration” of such peoples for things that interested them. None of these claims were backed up with experimental evidence. Here we provide the first empirical evidence of a population with an ability to concentrate on a visual task that is greater than it is in Westerners.

The Himba are a remote semi-nomadic culture in northern Namibia. We have recently reported evidence that, compared to Westerners, the Himba show a greater tendency to process the local features of an image rather than the global structure. Unlike Westerners, the Himba match compound stimuli based on their local, rather than global, similarity [10]. Also, their size judgments of target circles were little affected by the size of surrounding circles, suggesting that the Himba experience considerably less Ebbinghaus illusion than Western controls and as a result produced more accurate size judgments [11]. We interpreted these findings as evidence that the Himba have a local bias in visual processing that is stronger than that observed in Westerners.


In sum, the aim of the current study was to explore the role of distractibility in the local bias found in the visual processing of a remote culture. We compared the ability to selectively attend to target information and ignore distracting information between Westerners and a remote culture. In Experiment 1, the Himba were less distracted by irrelevant flanker arrows, even at a low level of perceptual load. To establish that this effect could not be explained in terms of cultural differences in familiarity with the task or stimuli, we conducted Experiment 2 in which we presented distracting stimuli with a sudden onset. The capture of attention produced by such stimuli is particularly difficult to guard against, yet this study showed again that the Himba are less distractible than Westerners. Our results show that the Himba are significantly less distracted by task-irrelevant visual information than are Westerners, suggesting that their local processing bias may derive from a superior attentional control for task-relevant information.