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How Limited Attention Spans Can Hinder Decision Making — And Impact Impeachment Proceedings

Jameca Falconer joined Friday's "St. Louis on the Air" to talk about the types of attention and how limited attention spans can lead to hasty or irrational decision making. Steve Smith joined the conversation by phone to talk about guidelines for senators
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

This week marked the next phase of the U.S. Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Eventually, the senators will have to vote whether or not to remove the president from office. Senators are in the midst of a question-and-answer period before potentially calling on witnesses to testify. 

The lawmakers sit through hours and hours of information overload during these hearings, which began Jan. 16, and are only granted a brief 15-minute recess every two hours — with a 45-minute recess for dinner at 6 p.m. The break time is decided on by the majority leader, with approval from the minority leader. 

That can take a mental and physical toll — as noted by reporters covering the hearings and illustrated by senators taking cat naps or walking out during presentations. One senator is even providing fidget spinners to colleagues. 

How is possible that they process all the information they’re being presented with? Well, they don’t. They can’t. Despite whether or not the senators intentionally or subconsciously miss information, there’s a limit to how long one can pay attention, says Dr. Jameca Falconer. She is a professor of behavioral analysis in the Webster University School of Education, and understanding the process of paying attention is among her specialties. 

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Falconer joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss the different types of attention — such as sustained and divided — implications of limited attention spans, and how that can lead to hasty or irrational decision making. Also joining the discussion will be Washington University’s Steve Smith, director of its Weidenbaum Center. 

Smith explained the guidelines senators have to follow during the impeachment hearings, such as why water is the only drink allowed on the Senate floor — with milk being the one exception — and how some senators' decision to tune out is not befitting of Senate tradition. 

Listen to the full discussion: 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.