Short interruptions can cause large errors

Even an interruption as small as a few seconds is costly, beyond what we previously anticipated

PDA phone ringing
Even small interruptions can be costly

Small interruptions, even as small as few seconds to silence a smartphone that is buzzing, can have a huge effect on our ability to correctly complete a task at hand—as per new research led by Michigan State University.

300 people were studied where in they did a sequence-based procedure on a computer. The results were quite astonishing. An interruption of even three seconds doubled the error rate.

Interruptions are an every day occurrence, right from text messages on the smartphone to a work colleague dropping in and interrupting an important conversation. But the resulting errors can be disastrous especially 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 explore the effect of brief interruptions on relatively difficult tasks. The findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“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.

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