Directed Attention   
A pre-condition for the civil transition to durable living

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS)
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

November 10, 2022

Listen: Interview on mental vitality and localization (from Radio EcoShock)   

Directed attention is a foundational mental resource that allows us to voluntarily manage the focus and direction of our thoughts and to regulate our emotions. It is useful for dealing with the short-term versus long-term choices involved in our effort to remain effective, productive, clearheaded and helpful. We use it to inhibit the power of the immediate environment, or internal distractions, so as to allow consideration of less salient but nonetheless valued information.

Directed attention allows for a variety of prosocial and proenvironmental behaviors. It allows us to pursue an important goal despite interesting competition in the immediate setting, to help others despite our own unmet personal needs, and to resist temptation so that we can maintain devotion to a larger concern. In short, the capacity to direct attention is an essential resource for achieving both civility and environmental stewardship.

Recent research shows that directed attention is a scarce and finite mental resource. When placed under continual demand, our ability to direct the focus of our thoughts tires, resulting in a condition called directed attention fatigue (DAF). This condition reduces our overall mental effectiveness and makes consideration of abstract concepts and long-term goals difficult, at best. A number of symptoms are commonly attributed to this fatigue: irritability and impulsivity that results in regrettable choices and statements, impatience that has us making risky or otherwise poor decisions, and distractibility that allows the immediate environment to have a greatly magnified effect on our choices and decisions. The symptoms of DAF can be summarized as a reduced ability to make and follow plans, and the inability to mentally restrain impulsive thought or action. Directed attention fatigue makes both proenvironmental and prosocial behavior much less likely.

If we value community, civility and environmental stewardship then taking action to manage our capacity to direct attention is not optional. Since it fatigues regularly, we must restore this resource regularly. The references below provide more details on this precious mental resource and give advice for its support, management and restoration.

Related documents:

Beadle, S. (undated). Directed attention fatigue and restoration.

De Young, R. (2010). Restoring mental vitality in an endangered world. EcoPsychology, 2,
   < Persistent archive URL = >

De Young, R. (2009). Walking for mental vitality: Some psychological benefits of walking in natural settings. From a paper presented at the Walk21 Conference. Toronto, Canada

Kaplan, S. and R. Kaplan (2009). Creating a larger role for environmental psychology: The Reasonable Person Model as an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29, 329-339.

Kaplan, S. and R. De Young (2002). Toward a better understanding of pro-social behavior:
The role of evolution and directed attention. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 25, 263-264

<Persistent archive URL =  >

Testing the capacity to direct attention

Free recall test

Stroop effect test

Necker Cube pattern reversal test

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) on Wikipedia

Detroit Metro Time interview (16 November 2011)

Radio EcoShock interview (2012)

       Document version: November 6, 2022 16:58