WARNING: Your brain is about to experience conflict and interference, while executing a suspiciously mundane task. Do not scoff. Different-colored words will slow down your mental processing, and there’s almost nothing you can do about it—except read the rest of this article to learn more. You are at the mercy of . . . the Stroop effect!
Get ready: The following is a group of words, written in colors that are different from those they describe. The challenge? Name the colors the words are written in as fast as you can; don’t read the words themselves!
Example: Black. (The name you should be thinking to yourself is actually red. Make sense?)
How’d it go? Did you sprint through, or did Stroop stump you? Let’s get down to the business of what this actually is and why it happens.
What is it?
The Stroop effect is the name for that interference (mind flub) you just experienced, in which a series of conflicting mental processes were all competing for attention and prominence in your brain at once.
So, let’s break down the experiment from above: You read the color-words (even though we told you not to), you then reminded yourself not to read the color-words (How’d that go?), then you had to identify the colors that the color-words were written in, and finally name those colors out loud . . . as fast as possible. Even though you stumbled through, give your brain a hand for working all that out!
Who’s behind this?
The psychologist John Ridley Stroop didn’t discover the phenomenon of cognitive interference, but he published the color/word combat test in 1935 to build on research about how interference works. For example, why do some verbal responses come faster to us than others?
Why does it happen?
Basically, once we learn how to read, we can’t unlearn. That’s why it’s so hard (impossible?) to ignore the words that are written! In the experiment above, it’s typical to read the words in about half the time it takes to name the colors the words were written in.
A number of theories explain why the Stroop effect happens. Maybe the brain reads faster than it recognizes color. The brain might need to use more attention to name the color than to read the word. Or simply, after reading becomes a habit, the process of reading is more automatic and effortless than the process of analyzing and naming colors, which takes more effort.
Why should you know about it?
In recent years, variations of the Stroop test have been used to help people increase their mental vitality and hone their directed-attention skills. Directed attention is a crucial mental resource that enables people to take control of their thoughts and direct their focus where they want or need to. It’s what allows people to safely drive a car, while having a conversation, or study for an exam, despite the ambient noise of the coffee shop.
As you saw, your brain can only handle so much at one time. It is common to get mentally fatigued and lose the ability to be fully alert, productive, and effective during times of immense activity. But, when people are fatigued, they get impatient and grumpy, and they make bad decisions and say the wrong things. With practice (like practicing the Stroop test and other mental workouts), it is possible to sharpen your attention skills and push distractors away . . . with our minds.