Distracting sounds linked to diminished focus, memory, according to LSU study

Psychology research may add more fuel to the debate over multitasking


A new study concludes that sounds unrelated to a listener’s immediate task – otherwise known as “distractions” – can hurt cognitive performance.

The Louisiana State University research appears to provide yet more evidence that multitasking – engaging in multiple activities simultaneously – diminishes a person’s focus and productivity.
In four separate experiments, both local second-graders and LSU psychology students were shown words on a computer screen and instructed to remember them in the correct sequence. As the participants read the words, they also sometimes heard unrelated words in the headphones all were wearing.

Adults in the LSU study showed a word recall performance drop of 10% on average, while the second-graders’ performance diminished by up to 30% on average.

In other words, cognitive processing by study participants was impaired when they were distracted by competing stimuli, which reduced their ability to perform required jobs (in this case, reading and memorizing).

LSU psychology professor Emily Elliott, who conducted the research with doctoral candidate Alicia Briganti, told ITworld:

“The research that I have done and that I have read indicates that multitasking comes at a price, even though the person may be unaware. The costs are typically shown in an overall slower time to finish a task, and/or increased rate of errors.”

Multitasking has been studied for years, even before the widespread adoption of personal digital devices and the Internet. Research invariably shows that the processes of switching between tasks (going from email to a spreadsheet, for example) and trying to absorb competing streams of information (reading while watching YouTube videos or driving while texting) impairs the brain’s ability to absorb and evaluate information, thus reducing overall productivity and increasing the changes of error.

In the case of texting and driving, the results can be deadly. In the workplace, the downside of multitasking is diminished effectiveness and waste. A 2010 study by Workplace Options, an employee-support services organization, estimated that multitasking costs U.S. businesses $650 billion a year in lost productivity through distractions.

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