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Even One Text Alert Is Disruptive

Tests with college students found mistakes rise with interruptions from phone notifications


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In the middle of a pleasant face-to-face conversation with a friend, your cellphone signals that someone has texted or called. You don’t want to be rude and pull out your phone to check who’s trying to reach you, but gee, you can’t help trying to guess. Soon, you realize that you have no idea what your friend, the one standing right in front of you, has been talking about.

Sound familiar? A June 2015 study suggests you’re far from alone. Florida State University researchers found that even if you don’t answer a call or respond to a text, the notification that you got one can distract you as much as if you had.

“We think that receiving a notification can cause mind-wandering,” says Cary Stothart, a psychology doctoral student who led the study. “If you received a notification but are in a situation where you can’t look at it, you may start to wonder about its source and content. Who sent it? Is it an emergency?”

In the first part of their study, Stothart and his collaborators asked their subjects to complete a task on the computer that required a lot of attention. The researchers then randomly divided study participants into three groups — call, text message or no notification — and asked them to complete more computer tasks. People who received notifications made more than three times the number of mistakes that the no-notification group did.

Virtually all of the study participants had their phones set to vibrate, so the researchers couldn’t determine whether other types of alerts were even more distracting, Stothart says. “We would suspect that any type of notification would cause distraction as long as you can detect it.”

Stothart and his collaborators studied college students, but he says they are underway with another study that includes older subjects. In this study, to be conducted with a driving simulator, participants will need to react to vehicles that brake in front of them while they receive text messages and phone calls.

Previous research has found that older adults’ minds don’t wander as much, but when they do, the impact is worse, Stothart says. “If this is the case, then we would suspect that older adults tend to think about notifications less than younger adults, but when they do think about notifications, the impact that it has on performance is more severe.”

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