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.
Findings published in The Lancet show chance of heart attack drops by 48% when people most at risk take cholesterol-lowering medications
Paranoid fears are common and have a variety of causes but new research shows specific issue cognitive behaviour therapy can bring significant benefits
Popular belief has it that human ‘sex pheromones’ exist and are well-established by the scientific community. But all is not as it seems, as Tristram Wyatt explains
Toward the end of World War II, the Nazis blocked all food and fuel supplies to the Netherlands, leading to famine. Many babies born during this famine suffered long-term effects, including a higher incidence of a variety of conditions such as heart disease, obesity, glucose intolerance, and obstructed airways.
Your girlfriend is right. Adults can expect to get flu only twice every 10 years, suggests an analysis of the antibodies in people's blood
Drinking a few cups of coffee a day may help people avoid clogged arteries - a known risk factor for heart disease - South Korean researchers believe.
Researchers in China produce a herd of genetically engineered cows that are better able to ward off bovine TB.
The first model of a zombie epidemic to use real US census data lets you choose where the plague begins and how fast it spreads
Revealing new details about the origins of AIDS, scientists said on Monday half the lineages of the main type of human immunodeficiency virus, HIV-1, originated in gorillas in Cameroon before infecting people, probably via bushmeat hunting.
Few doctors — and few patients — realize just how profoundly early abuse, neglect and other childhood traumas can damage an adult's physical health.