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. 2014 Feb;143(1):215-26.
doi: 10.1037/a0030986. Epub 2013 Jan 7.

Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought

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Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought

Erik M Altmann et al. J Exp Psychol Gen. .

Abstract

We investigated the effect of short interruptions on performance of a task that required participants to maintain their place in a sequence of steps each with their own performance requirements. Interruptions averaging 4.4 s long tripled the rate of sequence errors on post-interruption trials relative to baseline trials. Interruptions averaging 2.8 s long--about the time to perform a step in the interrupted task--doubled the rate of sequence errors. Nonsequence errors showed no interruption effects, suggesting that global attentional processes were not disrupted. Response latencies showed smaller interruption effects than sequence errors, a difference we interpret in terms of high levels of interference generated by the primary task. The results are consistent with an account in which activation spreading from the focus of attention allows control processes to navigate task-relevant representations and in which momentary interruptions are disruptive because they shift the focus and thereby cut off the flow.

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