Push notifications as distracting as responding, says study

Just receiving notifications on your mobile phone can impair your ability to focus on a given task, a new study finds

Mobile phone connecting business technology network
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If you thought that simply ignoring push notifications would allow you to focus on projects, you’re probably mistaken.

Getting a push notification on your mobile device is no less distracting as responding to a text or a taking a call, a new study says.

The problem is that your mind wanders when you notice the alert, the researchers think.

“Although these notifications are short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

And that distraction has been shown to damage task performance, they say.

Study

The research, conducted by scientists at Florida State University, and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, compared the performance of participants on an attention-demanding computer task.

In the first part of the test, the participants were told to simply complete a task.

Then, in the second part of the study, participants were secretly assigned to one of three groups: call, text or no notification.

Call and text notifications were then sent to the phones of participants in those first two groups.

More mistakes

The participants who received notifications “made more mistakes on the computer task” than those who didn't get them, Jill Elish writes on the Florida State University website.

In fact, the notification receivers were three-times more likely to make a mistake than the third, no-notification group.

Those notification-receiving groups didn’t know the calls and texts were coming from the researchers, according to Elish.

Meaning

While it’s generally acknowledged that using a phone while doing something else detracts from the task at hand, this may be the first time that we’ve seen evidence that auditory or tactile notification alerts do the same thing.

“People have limited capacity for attention that must be split between tasks,” the group says.

“We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task,” the researchers say in the paper.

It doesn’t matter that it’s just a quiet vibration, either.

Awareness is the same

The Florida State researchers also say that simply being aware of a missed call or text can have the same effect as the poorer performance gotten through actually using a mobile phone.

Even waiting to call someone back might affect attention on an existing task, according to the researchers.

They think that their study shows that remembering to perform some action in the future is enough to disrupt performance.

Multitasking

Many subscribe to a bottleneck-theory that you can’t multitask. Cognitively it isn't possible and the human brain isn't wired like that: One of the two tasks derails the other.

Indeed, I’ve always thought of multi-tasking in conspiracy-theory terms of greedy bosses trying to get more work out of employees by perpetuating the idea that multitasking is a marker of super-employee strength.

This new research could contribute to the notion that it’s not. If you're looking for evidence, for a demanding boss, that being overworked is counterproductive, here's some.

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