Fifteen years ago, cellphones announced their presence with a long and sometimes silly ring. Now, our devices are less likely to ring than emit a single beep or boop. Even a muted vibration might indicate a text or a new score or a Facebook message.
A new study from three researchers at Florida State University suggests that merely receiving a push notification is as distracting as responding to a text message or a phone call.
The study asked more than 150 students to complete a well-known test of sustained attentional performance. For that test, subjects are shown a series of single digits on a screen. A new digit is displayed about every second. Students are supposed to tap the keyboard every time the digit changes, unless the new digit is 3. (Though it’s not interactive, you can see a version of this test on YouTube.) Everyone took the test twice: the first time, they did it uninterrupted by their devices; the second time, assistants placed calls or texts to some of the students’ phones.
The researchers found that performance on the assessment suffered if the student received any kind of audible notification. That is, every kind of phone distraction was equally destructive to their performance: An irruptive ping distracted people just as much as a shrill, sustained ring tone. It didn’t matter, too, if a student ignored the text or didn’t answer the phone: As long as they got a notification, and knew they got it, their test performance suffered.