UCL scientist develops a measure of distraction

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A scientific indicator of how easily distracted you are has been designed by a UCL (University College London) psychologist. It could be used as another assessment tool during the recruitment process and would have particular benefits in fields where employee distraction could lead to fatal errors.

People who are more easily distracted are at greater risk of being involved in accidents. Professor Nilli Lavie, UCL Psychology, who led the research published today in the Association for Psychological Science journal, said: “When you are easily distracted, you are more liable to do things like put your keys in the fridge or call out ‘come in’ when answering the phone. These are the more amusing consequences of distraction but distraction can have more serious implications. For example, it is known to be associated with a higher risk of being involved in various types of accidents such as car and workplace accidents.”

Some jobs – such as bus driver or pilot – put the employee in situations where the potential for distraction is very high and yet focused attention is crucial. This computer-based test, which measures subjects’ accuracy and reaction times when they are exposed to distractions, would effectively filter out any candidates who were easily distracted.

Professor Lavie said: “This test could act as another form of psychometric testing for employers who want to know how focused the staff they are hiring are likely to be. Some jobs can be undertaken very well even if you are prone to being distracted. For example, you can be a great scientist or writer and still be absent-minded! But there are many areas where productivity critically depends on the ability of staff to stay focused, yet current psychometric tests do not measure it.”

This test correlates with responses given to the ‘Cognitive Failures Questionnaire’, which predicts a person’s level of distractibility provided that the subject answers honestly. The questions include: “How often do you find you accidentally throw away the thing you want and keep what you meant to throw away – as in the example of throwing away the matchbox and putting the used match in your pocket?”

Professor Lavie said: “Relying on questionnaires to assess how easily distracted potential employees might be obviously has its downsides – people are not always honest about their negative attributes during interviews.

“People come away from our test thinking they’ve done really well and haven’t been distracted at all when in fact their response times increase and they tend to make more mistakes; showing that they have been distracted. So the test is objective and there’s no way of doctoring the results.”

61 subjects took a short computerised test during which letters, acting as distractions, flashed up on screen. The test involves finding the odd-one-out in a circular display of letters. For example, subjects had to find the letter X amongst similar letters such as H,M,K and Zs or, in the easier task, a letter X or N among Os. At the same time, letters were flashed on-screen outside the circle of letters to distract the participant from their task. Subjects were asked to ignore the distracter letters and focus on the odd-one-out in the circle of letters. They had to rapidly press the relevant key on a keyboard when they located the odd-one-out. This measures reaction times and the effects of distracters on performance.

The second finding in the paper showed that all people – whether they are generally easily distracted or not – were far less distracted when they were performing the more difficult task. Because the brain was loaded with information that was relevant to the task, there was no extra brain capacity for processing distracting information and so even people who are more easily distracted are able to focus all their attention on the task in hand.

Professor Lavie said: “This second finding shows that, even if you are more easily distracted than others, you can decrease your susceptibility to being distracted. This could have important implications for increasing attention and performance. I am currently working on specific applications for education that aim to improve attention in school pupils and reduce the likelihood of them being distracted both in class and when doing homework. We could make commercial applications of the distraction test available on demand.”