Errors Abound When You Are Interrupted During Complex Tasks
January 8, 2013

Brief Interruptions Increase Error Rates In Difficult Tasks

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

According to a new study by researchers at Michigan State University, little interruptions like the intermittent buzz of an incoming text message can have a big effect on our ability to accurately perform routine tasks.

Particularly since the smartphone invasion began a few years ago, brief interruptions in the form of calls, text messages and app alerts have become a standard feature of life in the U.S. and much of Europe, especially if you´re a member of the hyper-connected 14-40 year-old demographic. And with an increasingly mobile and home-based work force, even the most vigilant of technophobes are finding the buzzes, bings and beeps of their mobile devices ineluctably creeping into their daily routine. And according to the researchers, these little disturbances in concentration may be anything but harmless.

Led by MSU psychology professor Eric Altmann, the team of scientists asked 300 volunteers to complete a series of basic, sequence-based tasks on a computer. They found that the mere introduction of a few three-second interruptions was enough to more than double the subjects´ rate of error.

“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. He noted that the effects of these distractions are probably particularly dangerous for people working in concentration-demanding professions such as airplane pilots and emergency room doctors.

For the experiment, the volunteers were asked to perform a series of related tasks in a specific order, such as using a keyboard to indicate where a given letter was closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet. Participants were then intermittently and without warning told to type two letters before continuing with the task — an interruption that lasted only about 2.8 seconds.

While participants made a small number of errors even without the interruptions, their error rates were roughly twice as high when they resumed working on the task after the distractions.

Although the team had anticipated some increase in the number of mistakes following the interruptions, Altmann says were astounded that such short interruptions could have such a dramatic effect on performance. The interruptions themselves required less time than the individual steps in the main task, indicating that the duration of the distractions probably wasn´t the main source of the participants´ mistakes.

“So why did the error rate go up?” asked Altmann rhetorically. “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.”

For many, the study provides concrete evidence for what most of us already know: little distractions can have a big impact on our efficiency, accuracy and productivity, regardless of the type of task you´re performing.

According to Altmann, there´s one surefire solution to this problem whether you´re a physician performing an emergency operation, a professor explaining the intricacies of string theory, or a web writer covering the latest scientific research. Powering down your mobile device whenever you can is the only foolproof way to start reclaiming your concentration and avoiding the frustrations of unnecessary errors.

The study was funded by the U.S. Navy´s Office of Naval Research and is one of the first of its kind to examine the effects of short interruptions on relatively difficult tasks. A report of the study was published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.