At any given moment, you can be focused on thinking about what is going on in the world around you, or you can be motivated to act in the world. For example, you might contemplate taking an art class. In the thinking mindset, you would consider the various pros and cons of taking this class. In the doing mindset, you would generate and then execute a plan for registering and attending the class. Psychologists have used different terms to describe these orientations, but I will call them the thinking mindset and the doing mindset.
Most of the research on these mindsets has focused on the behaviors that are associated with them. An interesting question, though, surrounds whether these motivational states affect what you see. This issue was explored by Oliver Buttner, Frank Wieber, Anna Maria Schultz, Ute Bayer, Arnd Florack, and Peter Gollwitzer in a paper in the October, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The idea is that when you are focused on thinking, you are open to lots of possibilities, and so you are willing to be expansive in the information you take in. When you are focused on doing, then you narrow your attention to the information you think is most important.
To test this possibility, the researchers first manipulated people’s mindset. To put people in a thinking mindset, they asked people to spend some time reflecting on an unsolved personal problem. To put people in a mindset, they asked people to create a plan to complete a personal project. These tasks have been used in previous studies as well.
Then, participants were asked to look at a series of pictures on a computer monitor. The pictures showed an object or animal against a background (such as a cow against a farm field). Participants were told to look at the pictures and then rate how much they liked them.
While participants looked at the pictures, their eyes were being tracked. Though you may not realize it, your eyes are constantly in motion. You have only a small amount of very clear vision in each eye. If you hold your arm out and stick up your thumb, the area of clear vision (which reflects the location of a densely packed group of cells in the back of your eye) is about the size of your thumbnail. In order to build up a view of what you are looking at, you have to move your eyes around. The information you point your eyes toward is a good indicator of what you are paying attention to.
Participants who were put in a thinking mindset looked about equally at the central object in the picture and the background. Those who were put in a doing mindset looked much more at the central object than at the background. This result is consistent with the idea that the doing mindset narrows attention to what seems important, while the thinking mindset enables people to take in a lot of information.
One reason why this finding is important, is that our modern world promotes getting things done. We feel as though we should always be doing something. However, if we want to take a broad view of a situation, then we need to be willing to take a step back and to put ourselves in a mindset of thinking rather than doing. These mindsets actually influence what we see in the world around us.