For better or for worse, I seem to be something of an expert on the subject of distraction, mostly because it happens to me a lot. For example, when I write stuff here, it is rare that I am able to just sit down and hammer out an entire post in one sitting. Usually when I write, I tend to write a couple of sentences, then go wander around the apartment for a bit (usually ending up in the kitchen and snacking, which probably isn’t the best thing to do either.) When I manage to get back to the computer, I end up checking my e-mail to make sure that nothing important has shown up in the last two minutes since I last checked it, go check a Blog or two and get lost in some 300-post fanboy flamewar comment thread on Kotaku before remembering that I’m supposed to be working on a Blog post. When I get back to the post, I usually end up rewriting something I wrote three paragraphs ago and tinker around with the graphics a bit, then I finally get around to writing some more stuff before repeating the whole process over again. Sometimes, it’s a wonder that I manage to get anything posted at all. At times, even the most trivial of posts here can end up taking hours to write. I usually just refer to it as “multitasking” and call it good.
After work today, I took a trip over to Costco to go grab a few things (it’s funny how “a few things” at Costco always ends up costing at least $50 and usually closer to $75, but that’s another post.) Among the stuff I picked up was some cereal to take to work for a quick breakfast. Frosted Mini-Wheats is one of my typical choices, since I’m rapidly approaching the point where I should probably stop trying to live off of sugar-soaked kid cereals but still somehow fail to do so much of the time (and no, that’s NOT my box of Cocoa Puffs in the cupboard, why do you ask?) The packaging for the cereal contains what may be one of the more unusual claims I’ve seen printed on a cereal box:
Everyone in the cereal aisle these days seems to be trying to convince you that Vaguely Fruit-Flavored Technicolor Puffs and Sugar-blasted Cocoa Bombs (of Doom) are healthy because they heard a rumor that someone might have tripped on a catwalk and spilled a sack of whole wheat into the production line last Thursday. Unless you happen to be eating the stuff that Great Grandpa ate back during his stay at the Sanitarium that nobody likes to talk about or some of the new-age hippie stuff like The People’s Glorious Organic Wheat Puffs (also of Doom,) rarely do you see anyone making such bold scientific claims about the magical powers of cold cereal. Yet for some reason, Kellogg’s is now claiming that Frosted Mini-Wheats have been clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%. Why, the stuff is practically a Family-size box of edible Ritalin, without the pesky side effects of making people stay up half the night and write about empty shopping malls on the Internet!
Of course, due to the Truth in Advertising laws, you can’t just go around claiming that your product will make the kids stay focused on their arithmetic lesson even when the pet rabbit in Mrs’ Ryan’s fourth grade class manages to escape from its hutch and wander into the room without some proof to back it up, so further explanation is provided on the side of the box. As you might expect, they’re not talking about any sort of miracle cure for bright shiny objects here, just the usual bit about how eating food somehow manages to makes you feel less hungry than not eating food. It goes on to explain how fiber slows down the eating process and “may contribute to a feeling of being full.” Of course, I’m pretty sure that the cardboard that the box is made out of would contribute to a “feeling of being full” if you somehow managed to eat the stuff in suffcient quantity (not that I have any experience on the subject or anything…) I don’t think it takes a clinical study to figure any of that stuff out. So where’s the clinical study anyway?
Buried in the fine print, of course. What the whole thing boils down to is that over the course of three hours, kids that eat Frosted Mini-Wheats manage to somehow be 18% more attentive (which apparently rounds up to 20% to provide a nice round number to plaster on the box in huge fonts) than kids who didn’t eat any breakfast at all. An earth-shattering revelation to be sure, but that still doesn’t really say anything about what was done to prove this. To find out more info on the actual testing that was done, you have to go their website (annoying Flash warning). Aside from the so-called focus games (just a basic Memory match thing and a Sudoku puzzle, much better versions of which can be found at pretty much any reputable and/or disreputable Flash games site,) the site continues to hype the clinical study. Clicking on the news link greets you with yet another page of breathless hyperbole, with tales of Moms cheering on their Mini-Wheat fueled offspring as they outperformed a group of children that weren’t given any breakfast on some standardized test. Aside from the fact that the whole entire scenario seems thoroughly absurd (unless the tests were being administered by Bob Barker and the winners were receiving a new car for their efforts,) exactly what kind of example would that be setting for the children anyway? If your kid comes home from school and complains that there’s a bunch of wheat-eating maniacs on the playground running up the score against the third graders at kickball, at least you’ll know who to blame.
But even after all that nonsense, they still haven’t bothered to explain anything about how the actual clinical study was done. For that, you have to click yet another (rather small) link on the page to get to one more page, which finally has a few actual details buried in more of the usual “eating breakfast is good for you” mumbo-jumbo. It references something known as a “Digit Vigilance test” that is supposed to measure attentiveness, as well as a reaction test. Some searching on the Internet revealed this example of a Digit Vigilance test, although I can’t seem to actually get it to work. Given the fact that other places that come up in the search results are trying to sell you these things for hundreds of dollars a pop, I’m going to guess that this is probably a fairly standard test for this type of thing. They’ve also got the Choice Reaction Time test here, which does seem to work, but it doesn’t seem to give you any resuts from the test (presumably, that’s the part you’re supposed to pay the big bucks for.) As can be expected, the results here are the same as everywhere else, although here they’re slightly less gilded in marketing mumbo-jumbo.
So in the end, it takes wading through several pages of fine print and marketing speak to get down to the fact that eating sugar-encrusted breakfast cereal makes you 18% more attentive than not eating sugar-encrusted breakfast cereal. Why exactly did we needed a clinical study to tell us this? Somehow, I think that weasel words would have been cheaper…