Brief interruptions can lead to crucial errors

People are more prone to making mistakes when their attention is caught by even the shortest of interruptions. This is the suggestion of new research from Michigan State University (MSU), which found a person's ability to accurately complete a task is significantly impacted by small disturbances, such as taking the time to silence a ringing phone.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the findings, which were gathered from more than 300 participants, revealed error rates doubled when individuals performing a sequence-based task on a computer were disrupted for just three seconds.

Erik Altmann, Associate Professor of Psychology at MSU, said: "What this means is that our health and safety is, on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted."

The authors explained the findings show interruptions - of which there are often many in people's daily lives - can have serious consequences, especially for professionals such as emergency room doctors.

Professor John Davies from the University of Strathclyde, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, comments:

"The research from MSU confirms similar findings from a number of previous studies. Distraction is a major cause of the 'attentional lapse', which increases the probability of subsequent error. Although there are several reasons as to why this happens, one of the simplest to understand is that sometimes people forget where they left off the task at hand, prior to the interruption. This can lead to missing out a crucial step (such as leaving something in a wound for example)  or alternatively duplicating something they have already done."