Mere awareness of a phone message notification represents enough of a distraction to impair people's abilities to perform tasks on computers, according to a study by researchers at Florida State University.
"The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification," co-authored by Cary Stothart, Ainsley Mitchum, and Courtney Yehnert, states 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." While the study did not specifically address wearable devices such as smartwatches, it's not hard to imagine the level of distraction being magnified by a vibrating notification on one's wrist.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, involved sending notifications to participants' phones while the participants conducted sustained tasks on a computer, without informing the participants of the purpose of the research until the conclusion of the experiment.
In an email interview with InformationWeek, Stothart, a doctoral student in psychology and lead author of the study, explained the rationale for the lack of disclosure. "We believe that the mechanism behind the effect is mind wandering, which basically refers to thinking about things (usually personally relevant things) that are not related to whatever task you're currently doing," he said. "If participants knew that the notifications were coming from us, then they would have been much less likely to think about them as they would already have known that the source of the notifications and their content is not personally relevant."
According to the study, the magnitude of the observed distraction effects can be compared to the distraction observed in those actively using a mobile device, for voice calls or texting.
This raises a significant question: Can notifications received by a phone in one's car produce distraction comparable to active phone use in the vehicle?
That question isn't addressed by this study, but it's the one the researchers plan to investigate in followup work using a driving simulator.
"It's difficult to map our task onto driving as the two tasks (sustained attention task and driving) are very different," said Stothart. "If mind wandering is the mechanism behind the notification effect, then we would expect knowledge of notifications to have the potential to cause accidents as mind wandering has been found to have that potential."
The perils of distracted driving are well-documented. According to the US Department of Transportation, 3,154 people were killed and about 424,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2013.
A 2011 CDC study found that more than two-thirds of adult drivers admitted talking on a cell phone while driving at least once in 30 days prior to their survey response.
Even absent findings that specifically tie unanswered phone notifications to traffic accidents, the FSU study suggests that ignoring a mobile phone will not prevent distraction. Beyond road safety, that has potential ramifications for workplace productivity, not to mention personal equanimity.
Stothart stressed that while the study didn't attempt to quantify any correlation between distraction and productivity, he believes that the potential productivity loss from distraction could be substantial. "If someone is attempting to ignore notifications coming from their cell phone while writing a paper or doing some other task that requires some sort of cognitive load, and they find that they are being distracted by thoughts about those notifications, then their productivity will likely be negatively impacted," he said.
Other research on how the distractions of open offices affect productivity support this view.
The paper's authors argue that the impact of unavoidable distraction needs to be considered as mobile phones affect more and more aspects of our lives.
"We would recommend that people turn off or put away their cell phone when they need to focus on a task as the mere knowledge of having received a phone notification may distract them," said Stothart.
If only it were that easy.