At this point, most people have heard about the danger of using cell phones during tasks like driving and even walking. The distraction caused by using a cell phone to be on social media or to text while doing work or studying is also obvious. This is because while people believe that they are multitasking while using their phone while studying, this is not the case at all. The strict definition of the term multitasking is that multiple activities are being performed simultaneously without a break in either task, such as singing while playing the guitar, and this is relatively uncommon to be able to do (David, Kim, Brickman, Ran, & Curtis, 2015). More likely is that people are task switching, which is when there is a temporary disengagement in one activity to perform the other, which is what we are doing when we text and drive, or check our phone while studying (David et. al, 2017). The cost in performance due to task switching has been shown repeatedly, in all types of activities, which is why driving becomes more dangerous and studying becomes more difficult.
However, the hindrance of a cell phone is not limited to the cost of task switching when one is using it. The sound of somebody else’s cell phone ringing can decrease performance, such as decreased attention and note-taking to the material during a lecture (End, Worthman, Mathews, & Wetterau, 2010). Even just the presence of a cell phone, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s, leads to worse performance on tasks that require attention, especially complex and difficult tasks (Thornton, Faires, Robbins, & Rollins, 2014).
The amount of attention that cell phones take up in our minds, even when we are not necessarily using them, is obvious. This is why psychologists at Florida State University wanted to test the attentional cost of receiving a notification. All of the public statements say to wait to respond when you receive a text or a call while driving. But it’s possible that even though you are not using your phone, that receiving a text and waiting to answer to it also has a cost. This may be because you are using your prospective memory: the memory that you use to remember to do something in the future, like respond to somebody’s text message. The attentional required in trying to remember to do something in the future could take away from the task at hand. Also, receiving a notification might lead to thoughts that are unrelated to the task being performed, like what the message may contain and who it is from, and these thoughts unrelated to the task can distract from the task itself (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).
An experiment performed at Florida State University in 2015 showed that this was true: when you receive a notification, even without looking at it or responding to it, it takes away some of your attention. The experiment that they performed used the SART, or the Sustained Attention to Response Task to measure attention. This task requires a great deal of attention and focus, as a number flashes on the screen, and a response is required quickly. For all numbers except three, the subject presses the space bar, and if the number is three, the subject does not press anything (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).
The participants all performed a block of the SART where they did not receive any notifications, and then during the second block, one condition received text messages, another received phone calls, and the third did not receive notifications again. The subjects did not know that their phones had anything to do with the study, so they were not told not to look at them or to turn them on. This also meant that they did not know that the researchers were going to be texting or calling them, so the subjects believed that the notification was personally relevant to them, which increased the chance of the subject to let their mind wander about who the notification was from, and what it was about (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).
There are two measurements of the SART that have been shown to be related to distraction, or a wandering mind during the task. The first is the measure of commission errors, which is when the space bar was pressed when it was not supposed to because the number 3 was on the screen. The second way to measure distraction is by observing that the response times are so quick, that it is clear the subject is not actually looking at the number on the screen, but is just pressing the space bar because that is likely the correct response. Both of these measurements were higher in the blocks where the participants received text messages and phone calls, compared to the first block, where the participants did not receive any notifications (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).
These results make it clear that receiving a notification does lead to distraction on a task that requires constant attention like the SART. And while it may seem that a notification is distracting because one has to take the time away from the task to look at the phone, the researchers purposely excluded the data of any subject that looked at their phone when they received a notification. And it was not just the sound of the phone ringing that distracted subjects, as the probability of committing an error was the same for the trials when the phone was not ringing as when it was in the phone call condition. Therefore, in this case, the participants were not distracted by looking at their phone, or distracted by the noise of a notification, but from the thoughts that come from hearing a notification and the mind wandering that occurs after you receive a notification (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).
This experiment has important implications for what was previously believed about the presence of cell phones during tasks that require focus. For example, it’s been believed that as long as you are not using your phone while you’re driving or studying, that it’s okay to have it near you. However, this study showed that even knowing that you have a notification caused a decrease in performance similar to that of texting while driving (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert). This means that when one is driving, studying, or trying to pay attention in lecture, your phone should be away and on silent. If you are in class, and your phone is in your pocket, even just a small buzz can lead to a distraction that can distract from lecture. It is clear that the scope of how distracting a cell phone can be goes well beyond just having to switch tasks, its presence and noise can be much more detrimental than we realize.
David, P., Kim, J., Brickman, J. S., Ran, W., & Curtis, C. M. (2015). Mobile phone distraction while studying. New Media and Society, 17(10). 1661-1679.
End, C.M., Worthman, S., Mathews, M., & Wetterau, K. (2010). Costly cell phones: The impact of cell phone rings on academic performance. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 55-57.
Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), 893-897.
Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479-488.