Short interruptions – such as the few seconds it takes to silence that buzzing smartphone – have a surprisingly large effect on one's ability to accurately complete a task, according to new research led by Michigan State University.
The study, in which 300 people performed a sequence-based procedure on a computer, found that interruptions of about three seconds doubled the error rate.
Brief interruptions are ubiquitous in today's society, from text messages to a work colleague poking his head in the door and interrupting an important conversation. But the ensuing errors can be disastrous for professionals such as airplane mechanics and emergency room doctors, said Erik Altmann, lead researcher on the study.
"What this means is that our health and safety is, on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted," said Altmann, MSU associate professor of psychology.
The study, funded by the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, is one of the first to examine the effects of brief interruptions on relatively difficult tasks. The findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Study participants were asked to perform a series of tasks in order, such as identifying with a keystroke whether a letter was closer to the start or the end of the alphabet. Even without interruptions a small number of errors in sequence were made.
Sometimes participants were interrupted and told to type two letters – which took 2.8 seconds – before returning to the task. When this happened, they were twice as likely to mess up the sequence.
Altmann said he was surprised that such short interruptions had a large effect. The interruptions lasted no longer than each step of the main task, he noted, so the time factor likely wasn't the cause of the errors.
"So why did the error rate go up?" Altmann said. "The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought."
One potential solution, particularly when errors would be costly, is to design an environment that protects against interruptions. "So before you enter this critical phase: All cell phones off at the very least," Altmann said.
Michigan State University: http://www.newsroom.msu.edu
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
In the 1950s a group of pioneering psychiatrists showed that hallucinogenic drugs had therapeutic potential, but the research was halted as part of the backlash against the hippy counterculture.
Five years ago cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez found himself in the Upper Yupno Valley, a remote, mountainous region of Papua New Guinea. The area is home to some 8,000 indigenous people, and Núñez and his graduate student, Kensy Cooperrider, were studying their conceptions of time.
With the Ebola outbreak in West Africa doubling by the month, the World Health Organization is pushing more extreme measures to contain the virus
For the first time, researchers have tracked the spread of Ebola, almost in real time, during an outbreak. The virus is quickly changing its DNA. But it's still unclear what these mutations mean.
Think of all the adults you know. Think of your parents and grandparents. Think of the teachers you had at school, your doctors and dentists, the people who collect your rubbish, and the actors you see on TV. All of these people probably have little mites crawling, eating, sleeping, and having sex on their faces.
A trial vaccine against Ebola could be tested on healthy volunteers in the UK in September, says an international health consortium.
The ALS Association has raised more than $94 million in recent weeks via its online ice bucket challenge — compared with $2.7 million this time last year. Now what?
Implant attached to bone in pioneering technique that helps prevent infection and discomfort
A new method for removing allergens from peanuts means help could soon be on the way for the roughly 2.8 million Americans with a potentially life-threatening allergy to the popular food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Tuesday.
Survey finds many social media users hesitate to express opinions unless they know their followers will agree with them