It’s official. Humans can’t multi-task (especially men, according to my wife). And the incontrovertible proof comes via your smartphone according to new research into ‘Digital Distraction’ featured in the Harvard Business Review.
So we all know the scenario… you want to concentrate on something and you just know that your phone is going to distract you. So what do you do? Well you might turn it face down so you can’t see the screen. Maybe you simply dial down the volume. Or, as I do, you put it into silent mode but keep ‘vibrate’ on. Well according to the (err) snappily entitled “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification” you are simply wasting your time…
It seems we are deluding ourselves when we use these basic measures to focus on another task because it transpires that even the slightest hint of a message from our phones in the form of a blink, buzz or blip will instantly take our attention away from the task in hand.
Three researchers from Florida State University initiated the study when they noticed their own behaviour was affected by the sweet siren call of their smartphones:
“If we were driving and we felt a vibration for a phone call, that led us to think about the source of that call — who it could be, what the message was”.
Pretty deep inspiration…
Anyway it seems additional investigations by the American Psychological Association support the view with plenty of experiments pointing to the fact that the human brain was not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Apparently trying to do more than one thing at the same time causes a “heavy cognitive load” which in turn dramatically affects our performance capacity and ultimately our productivity. Ever tried to read an email whilst making a phone call? Personally I can barely drink a cup of coffee whilst posting on Facebook.
This led the researchers to postulate that a simple alert from your phone could also cause ‘cognitive load‘ because it will make you try to figure out what the content is and/or who it is from. And even if you resist the temptation to check your phone immediately then the knowledge that you have some information waiting for you is a sufficient distraction to impede your performance as opposed to if you hadn’t received a notification at all.
To test the theory, the Leon county boffins did a simple number recognition test on over 200 students. The error rate for the control group who had no distractions was around 7 per cent. The second group, who were distracted by a text message had an error rate of 23 per cent and the final group, who were interrupted by a phone call, had an error rate of 28 per cent.
So there you have it, conclusive evidence that your smartphone is distracting you (although anyone with teenagers could have told you that for free). And the blindingly simple solution that the researchers offer? Turn off your phone.