Shush! Top workers error-prone when interrupted by others, study finds

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Is your mojo on the job easily crushed when chatty Carl from down the hall stops to talk your ear off about his weekend plans? Turns out there’s scientific reasoning behind the phenomenon: A new study finds highly trained workers really are worse at their jobs when interrupted or distracted by someone else.

Researchers at Michigan State University examined 224 volunteers, all of whom participated in two sessions of performing a computer-based procedural task on separate days.

office chat
Does your work performance dip when someone stops to chat with you in the middle of the day? A new study finds being interrupted on the job can lead to more mistakes.

During the experiment, the volunteers were interrupted at random intervals with instruction to remember and then type out the last step they had performed. Those monitoring the volunteers mandated that this task be completed in order to advance to the next step of the task.

As expected, the volunteers got faster and better at the procedural task on the second day after all, practice makes perfect.

Mistakes following the intermittent interruptions increased in quantity during the second session, however; this was despite higher accuracy in performance, absent the interruptions.

The finding that interruptions during routine tasks can decrease work quality holds significance because workers in many professions e.g. nurses find themselves engaging in repetitive work.

It is believed that a faster pace plays a big role in making more errors, as interruptions make it more difficult for workers to remember where to resume.

“Suppose a nurse is interrupted while preparing to give a dose of medication and then must remember whether he or she administered the dose,” explains Erik Altmann, the study’s lead author, in a university news release. “The more experienced nurse will remember less accurately than a less-practiced nurse, other things being equal, if the more experienced nurse performs the steps involved in administering medication more quickly.”

Put another way, “the faster things happen, the worse we remember them,” Altmann says.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.