Learning From And Adapting To Interruptions
May 22, 2013

Learning From And Adapting To Interruptions

Can we really multitask digitally? In short, the answer is no, we cannot. We know already that people who play with their phones (whether talking on them, texting, or checking Facebook) while they drive seriously put themselves and others at risk, but we now know that digital multitasking at work also lowers people’s performance. In fact, both the Daily Mail and My FoxNY blatantly say that this digital multitasking makes us dumber.

According to a story on Yahoo.com, a brain interrupted is brain less capable of performance, or is a dumber brain. The findings that prove this come from Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology and Eyal Peer, a psychologist, both from Carnegie Mellon in Pennsylvania. Accordingly, Acquisti and Peer did the following:

“To simulate the pull of an expected cellphone call or e-mail, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test. In the experiment, 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects; one merely completed the test. The other two were told they “might be contacted for further instructions” at any moment via instant message.

During an initial test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. Then a second test was administered, but this time, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came. Let’s call the three groups Control, Interrupted and On High Alert.“

What they found both reinforced and surprised them. The study showed that those in the interrupted groups (Interrupted and On High Alert) from the first test did even worse than expected. They answered correctly 20 percent less often than members of the Control group. Twenty percent! This reinforced their ideas that multitasking interrupts concentration.

However, some improvement was seen in the second test that surprised researchers. Those in the Interrupted group still underperformed only this time they were correct 14 percent less often than members of the Control group. This improvement showed that they learned how to deal with the interruption pretty quickly. This is good news, but the fact that multitasking still showed interrupted individuals were 14 percent less often correct means that we should be careful with multitasking and likely should avoid it if we can.

The real surprise came from the On High Alert group in the second part. This group was told that they would be interrupted, but they never were. This group improved in their correct answers by 43 percent, and they outperformed the Control group this time. So, Peer speculates that the participants learned from the first experience and their brains adapted, but when they were never interrupted, they were able to do better possibly because they were focused on the task and waiting for the interruption.

Now, I know that the crux of this experiment shows that when we engage in digital multitasking, we are actually temporarily dumber, but I think there is a silver lining here. With the results of the On High Alert group in the second test, we learned that the brain can adapt and adjust to interruptions. Even the Interrupted group showed improvement in the second test showing that we can learn how to deal with interruption and thus multitasking.

I do not mean that we should multitask more. In fact, as the Yahoo.com article explained, we do not really multitask; rather, we engage in “rapid toggling between tasks.” This means that we do not fully commit to any single task but do many at one time. Nothing receives our full attention when we do this. Sometimes this “rapid toggling” happens out of our control. We must complete a report and reply to an email while answering the phone; however, when we do this, we make more mistakes.

The good news is that we can also learn to deal with this. Moreover, if we think we will be interrupted, we just might do a better job at the current task at hand. Of course, more research needs to be done on the latter, but it is a good start.

Really, this study shows that we need to focus on what we are doing instead of trying to “do” several things at one time. So close Facebook, logout of Twitter, shut down email, and just write your report.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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