How Distracting is the Thought of a Missed Message?

Do you put your phone on vibrate or silent while you work so as to not be distracted by incoming messages? What happens when you feel or hear the vibration, or see a tiny flash of light from the corner of your eye from the phone on your desk and you know you have a new notification? Do you ignore it? Do you check it? Do you sit there trying to ignore it but secretly half-thinking about what it might be?

Three researchers at Florida State University (Stothart et al., 2015) were curious if the mere thought of an incoming notification was enough to distract someone’s focus. They ran an experiment with 116 subjects who were separated into three groups. The control group completed a focus task that involved pressing a key every time a number flashed on screen that wasn’t the number 3. The other two groups did the same thing but, except one group got two incoming phone calls during the second half of their test and the other group got incoming text messages.

Importantly, the participants in this study had their own phones. They didn’t have dummy phones, and they didn’t know they would get the calls or texts. The researchers had collected their mobile phone numbers during the signup process so they’d be able to interrupt the people in the phone call or text message group.

The researchers then looked at all the scores. They were less concerned with which group scored highest overall and more concerned with how much their scores changed from the first half of the test to the second.

How Much Worse?

The control group’s scores got a little worse. The test is tiring, after all. Also, when the researchers know that someone pressed the key before they could have known for sure what number flashed on screen, those entries were marked wrong, too, because people tend to do that after a while. As you might have expected, the groups who were were getting incoming texts or phone calls, even when they didn’t answer it or check their phone, did much worse in the second half.

“We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task. The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone, either for voice calls or text messaging.”

According to a graph in Stothart et al.’s paper, participants in the control group increased their error rate by only 2 or 3 percent from the first half of the test to the second. The group interrupted by texts got worse by about 5 or 6 percent. And the group interrupted by calls jumped about 10 percent. (The researchers don’t break down these percentages precisely, and it’s a little tough to read the exact numbers in the graph.)

What Can You Do?

When you really want to focus and not be distracted, you’re best off turning off mobile devices entirely or putting them in airplane mode. Make sure you can’t hear it chime, see it flash a notification on screen, or feel it vibrate.


Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification.” Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception & Performance. June. DOI: 10.1037/xhp0000100.

Image by Neon Tommy, CC.


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