Interruptions Can Double The Odds Of Making Errors

A study, “Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought,” tested the notion that being interrupted, even for a few mere seconds could notably affect task performance.

To test the theory, Michigan State University researchers recruited 300 volunteers, assigning each with a complicated computer task. Each were asked to execute a step as part of a sequence, and to correctly do so relied on every individual person remembering their place in the pattern.

Additionally everyone was asked to participate in a brief non-sequenced side-task, drawing their attention away from their initial sequenced task for a few moments. Participants operating without obvious hesitation.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the study refers to the disruption as a “contextual jitter,” or resuming a task at a different point in the train of thought, therefore increasing the likelihood of errors.

Researchers found being interrupted for nearly three seconds doubled the odds of messing up on task. Interruptions exceeding four seconds tripled the risk of sequence errors, as the lapse was just enough to get a person off track.

Response latencies, the time from the onset of a stimulus until a response is observed, showed similar smaller interruption effects, though many participants didn’t seem to self-register a side effect from the short pause, and continued to operate as usual.

Prior research has found with nurses an increase of errors is associated with momentary but frequent interruptions. Combine distractions with work stress and lack of sleep and the odds increase exponentially.

Researchers at the University of Sydney studied 98 nurses as they prepared and administered medications to more than 4,000 patients. Nurses were observed for 505 hours from September 2006 through March 2008. Investigators noted any interruptions the nurses encountered when dealing with medication.

Two types of mistakes were recorded: procedural which can include not reading medication labels or failing to fully read a patient chart, and clinical, which included giving patients the wrong dose or wrong medication entirely.

Researchers found fewer than one-fifth of the cases were mistake-free. Nurses were interrupted more than 53 percent of the time when on task. Thus procedural errors transpired during 74.4 percent of administrations, and clinical errors were present in a quarter of all cases.

Each distraction accounted for a 12.1 percent increase in procedural errors, and 12.7 percent in clinical errors. No interruption accounted for 2.3 percent of serious mistakes.

Strategies were urged to reduce unnecessary interruptions, especially immediately before critical tasks, as the heightened number of preventable medical errors was disturbing.

[Image via Wikicommons]