Little Interruptions Cause Big Trouble in New Distraction Study

By Justin Lafreniere

College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Deborah Boehm-Davis, right, meets with psychology doctoral students Cyrus Foroughi and  Nicole Werner to discuss their research on how distractions during intensive tasks, cause drops in production and quality. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Dean Deborah Boehm-Davis, right, meets with doctoral students Cyrus Foroughi and Nicole Werner to discuss their research on how distractions affect work production and quality. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

When Cyrus Foroughi needs to write—something he’s been doing a lot of since he began working on a slew of new experiments for George Mason University’s Human Factors and Applied Cognition Program—he now makes sure to turn his phone notifications off and place the screen face down so even the flashing light won’t distract him. Foroughi, a second-year doctoral student, conducted a study on the impact of interruptions, along with fellow doctoral student Nicole Werner, alumnus Erik Nelson and Deborah Boehm-Davis, dean of George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Their research, published in the journal “Human Factors,” found that even short distractions during intensive tasks such as writing cause significant drops in overall production and quality of work.

In two studies, participants were asked to write independently graded essays. While the control group in each worked unfettered and uninterrupted, the experimental groups were interrupted with one minute of basic math problems during their outlining and writing stages (though all groups had the same amount of time to write). The results were pronounced: less words written and lower quality essays, up to a half-point drop on a six-point scale, for those who were sidetracked. Even when the amount of writing time for all groups increased, the results were almost identical. “There was no noise on the other side,” Foroughi says; no one who was interrupted wrote a better essay than those free from distraction.

Foroughi points out two trends in the research that highlight how disruptive even an interruption perceived as minor can be: Either participants’ writing tended to wander away from their thesis entirely, or they moved on from their previous train of thought without finishing it.

Boehm-Davis says she was unsurprised by the findings. “Earlier work hinted this might be true,” she says. Still, aside from the study’s results and its popularity (it’s been cited in a number of articles and radio spots), Boehm-Davis finds the research significant for another reason: “Cyrus is the only student I’ve mentored who has published a paper as a first author in the first year of doctoral studies.”

Foroughi points to the previous work of fellow researcher Werner, who set him up for success, and Mason faculty members who, Foroughi says, serve as an excellent support system. “If you need help, you’ll get it.”

The culture of cooperation and mentorship is deeply rooted. “We all learn best by being involved in a hands-on fashion, so having undergraduate and graduate students work alongside faculty members is the best way for us to deepen our knowledge of research,” says Boehm-Davis.

Writing was selected as the initially studied task because “it’s something we all do, from e-mails to reports,” Foroughi says. Its ubiquity might be second only to reading, the focus of a new study led by Foroughi, which he hopes to have published soon.

The article still needs a bit more writing though, so for now, please, no distractions.