Just receiving a simple notification on your cellphone can cause enough of a distraction to impair your ability to focus on a given task, researchers said.
The distraction caused by a notification - whether it is a sound or a vibration - is comparable to the effects seen when users actively use their cell phones to make calls or send text messages, they said. "The level of how much it affected the task at hand was really shocking," said Courtney Yehnert, a Florida State University (FSU) research coordinator.
"Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance," the researchers said.
"Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task," they said. The study underscores that simply being aware of a missed call or text can have the same effect.
The findings are significant because many public information campaigns intend to deter problematic cellphone use - while driving, for example - often emphasise waiting to respond to messages and calls. However, even waiting may take a toll on attention, according to the researchers.
Simply remembering to perform some action in the future is sufficient to disrupt performance on an unrelated concurrent task. The researchers compared the performance of participants on an attention-demanding computer task, which was divided into two parts. In the first part, participants were asked simply to complete the task.
During the second part, although they were not aware of it, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: call, text or no notification. Automated calls and texts were then sent to the personal phones of participants in the first two groups without their knowledge that the notifications were coming from the researchers.
Overall, the researchers found that participants who received notifications made more mistakes on the computer task than those who didn't. In fact, the increase in the probability of making a mistake was more than three times greater for those who received notifications, researchers said.
Those who received phone call notifications fared worse on the task than those who received a text alert. The research suggests that receiving a notification but not responding is as distracting as actually answering the phone or replying to a text.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.