Researchers at Michigan State University report even brief interruptions like a text messages on a smartphone can double the error rate in performing a task, and the ensuing errors can be disastrous for professionals such as airplane mechanics and emergency room doctors.
"What this means is that our health and safety is, on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted," MSU psychology Professor Erik Altmann said.
In the MSU study in which 300 people performed a sequence-based procedure on a computer, researchers found that interruptions of about 3 seconds doubled the error rate.
Altmann said he was surprised such short interruptions had a large effect, even when the interruptions lasted no longer than each step of the main task.
"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."
In an environment where errors would be costly, protection should be in place against interruptions, he said.
"So before you enter this critical phase: all cellphones off, at the very least."
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