April 24, 2005
Work Distractions Lower Effective IQ

Getting interrupted a lot by email and other messages has the equivalent effect on work efficiency of a 10 point IQ drop.

- One in five will break off from a business or social engagement to respond to a message.

- Nine out of 10 people thought colleagues who answered messages during face-to-face meetings were rude, while three out of 10 believed it was not only acceptable, but a sign of diligence and efficiency.

Note that if 9 out of 10 thinks it is rude to answer messages but 3 out of 10 think it is acceptable then doesn't that suggest that at least 2 out of ten think answering email messages while in meetings is both rude and acceptable? Hmmm....

Better to be stoned than to lose sleep or be interrupted?

- In 80 clinical trials, Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King's College London University, monitored the IQ of workers throughout the day. He found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points -- the equivalent to missing a whole night's sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

"This is a very real and widespread phenomenon," Wilson said. "We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker's performance by reducing their mental sharpness.

How real is this phenomenon? In my first real job I was placed in a small office next to the company's machine shop. While I tried to debug the software and hardware for a scientific instrument next door I heard drilling and hammering. I went to a gunshop and bought one of those headsets that target practice gunners use to protect their ears. It helped some.

"Companies should encourage a more balanced and appropriate way of working."

But many managers want their workers to promptly answer messages, promptly answer the phone, and come out to meetings and other distractions from getting work done.

Wilson said the IQ drop was even more significant in the men who took part in the tests.

"This is very, very real; but it is not a new phenomenon." Adam Boettiger, an author, publisher and professional coach to executives on time management and managing email overload says. "I've suspected the connection and witnessed it first-hand for years. Why this is a significant find is because (to my knowledge) it is the first clinical study that makes the connection."

Adam Boettiger is right. This is so not new.

The study was done using consistent types of problem solving tasks to measure differences of productivity under different conditions.

Eighty volunteers were asked to carry out problem solving tasks, firstly in a quiet environment and then while being bombarded with new emails and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to any messages, researchers found that their attention was significantly disturbed.

Alarmingly, the average IQ was reduced by 10 points - double the amount seen in studies involving cannabis users. But not everyone was affected by to the same extent - men were twice as distracted as women.

Some things seem destined for repeat discovery until the results are finally taken seriously. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister reported years ago in their book Peopleware that computer programmers who get interrupted often enough by phone calls, intercom announcements, and other sources of interruption get literally nothing done. While the book is a vague memory for me at this point I recall that as part of their consulting work they did studies in companies where they measured the ability of staffs to complete some standard programming assignments and had the staffs keep records of their interruptions. Interrupt rates accounted for a large portion of differences in programmer productivity between companies. Some companies seem intent on treating their programmers and other knowledge workers as highly interruptible and distractable. Go figure.

The extent to which distractions decrease productivity depends on the type of mental work being performed. Some people work on much larger mental tasks, Therefore interrupts cause them to lose a lot of context from working memory. A person who is trying to picture and move around between many parts of a large computer program or a silicon chip design suffers a greater loss in productivty from being interrupted than, for example, a person who handles 5 minute service calls where the answers are pretty rote. Someone who writes complex technical manuals or who tries to find connections between many parts of a complex body of law similarly may hold a lot of mental state and the cost of interruption of such a person is much higher than, say, a person who is simply proofreading a legal document for obvious syntax and grammar errors.

Methods of batchng up interrupts would allow workers to have longer stretches of mental time during which to concentrate on handling large interacting sets of rules and relationships. For example, rather than having all email arrive immediately an email program could be set to check email only at many hour intervals. Perhaps email inboxes should be updated at lunch time so that a person could come back from lunch and process all new morning email at once. Also, imagine phone extensions where the message at the extension reports up "Bob will not be accepting calls for the next 93 minutes. Please call back at 3:30 PM to reach Bob".

Loud intercom announcements are evil, mmmkay? (and before anyone corrects my spelling you should hear that in the voice of Mr. Mackey of South Park) Then we come to cubicle land conditions where every office conversation carries over 5 foot high walls to interrupt the concentration of minds in at least a half dozen other cubicles. What to say about this madness? Words fail me. Working at home is much more productive.

Update: Note the larger effective IQ drop in men than in women. This is consistent observations I've read elsewhere: Women are less irritated by interruptions and can function better through interruptions. Is this a female adaptation for child raising? Young children are like distraction machines. A mother can't get too wrapped up in some work or else her toddlers might wander off into danger. Even if they are nearby they make noises or do other things that demand attention. Are female minds better adapted to dealing with these interrupts?

Men spend less time raising children even after decades of feminist demands for change. Our male ancestors were hunting while the women were gathering. Maybe male pursuits historically had less distractions and required focused concentration that was easier to achieve.

Another point here: Modern technology automates the production of distractions. Will the problem get worse? Think about futuristic movies that show signs reading the identity of passersby and generating voices that speak to each passing person by their real name. Think about advertisements geared ever more precisely to the interests of each customer. Sounds like a recipe for increasing distaction, lower productivity, and unhappier lives.

The technologies which produce distractions appear to be mining fertile ground. Human minds seem drawn to many kinds of distractions. Are we stimulus junkies? Or are our minds wired up to evaluate distractions as potential attacks from predators? Did selective pressure on our neolithic ancestors make our minds geared up to constantly evaluate messages from humans in order to check for potential threats?

But technology also provides means to filter out distractions. Don't want to look through bills every month? Set up auto-pay from your checking account to various utilities and credit cards. Also, tune in to satellite radio stations that have no commercials. Or listen to prerecorded music from your own music database rather than listen to a radio station. Lower tech methods to reduce distractions include soundproofing and closing the blinds. I personally like to work in low lighting conditions so that the clutter around me won't distract my mind from the computer screens in front of me.

Once business executives finally understand that they are providing productivity-robbing work environments to their employees (and business managers appear to be slow learners on this score) we can expect to see lower distraction workplaces become all the rage. Some of the distraction lowering technologies developed for workplaces will find their way into homes as well.

Some day in the future cars will drive themselves for much of commuter trips down electronically instrumented highways. Before then more people will work from home and at least for some home workers the distractions of driving will be eliminated altogether. But we need to find more lower and higher tech ways to reduce the distractions that lower our productivity and reduce our ability to enjoy leisure activities.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 April 24 02:50 PM  Brain Intelligence

Spiny Widgmo said at April 24, 2005 8:43 PM:

I agree with everthing you say. It is horrible to work in those environments and doing things like wearing headphones, turning off the phone and not immediately responding to e-mail are all viewed as rude or at least atypical!

My experience has been that bosses are rewarded for two things, knowledge of daily workings and long term performance of a group. In some environments, measurement of long term performance is difficult and subject to salesmanship & puffery. Reduction of performance to number of lines of code or completed drawings is always subject to gamesmanship. Because of this, I suspect that many senior managers use intimitate and up to date knowledge of daily workings as surrogate for measurement of of a managers effectiveness. I think this translates into excessive communication for status feedback.

rsilvetz said at April 25, 2005 12:01 AM:

Are we stimulus junkies?

Yes. Yes we are. We are major stimulus junkies.

So much so that we engage in all sorts of justification for extraordinary behaviors. Just stop and watch people and emulate in your mind against a standard of optimum rationality. You will be shocked. This is experiential. Try it at the mall one day.

Interestingly I observe that the generation following us does extraordinarily well with interruptions. I watched a kid do calculus, adequately I might add, while having 10 instant messenger windows up and running. He smoothly multitasked the chat and the problems. It would be interesting to test this clinically and see what the effective IQ drop, if any, that occurs.

Ken said at April 25, 2005 1:04 AM:

The adults of today were not raised to switch tasks so quickly.

I believe this is happening: we have the brain encountering almost instant electronic information access. But only while it is young can it change to deal with it.

The brain always had almost instant access but only to what was immediately around us. And that tended to be homogeneous and semi-static. Cows were usually brown. TV (black and white only) seldom surprised, 3 networks, all ran by people in one square mile of Manhattan. TV commercials took a minute, sometimes two. They carefully said the product had good features and nothing was better. Color printing was uncommon in books 40 years ago. Driving down the road you saw new things but they were much like the old - it was cars from the big 3, trucks, houses for a while. Maybe you got to a lake and saw boats and bikinis. That was a change, kinda! Dullsville!

Now the one-year-old regards a huge color TV, 10 commericals in 2 minutes (each with 5 cuts), everything and anything seems to come alive, move without restraint, morph to any shape and color, in every conceivable landscape. Instead of 2 heros, Superman and Batman, you have X-Men, Transformers, and other hordes of wild thugs with fantastic powers. Over on MTV the dancers are speeded up to 20 steps per second, there are 80 of them, and enough fireworks to conduct WW2. All that in about 10 minutes while mommy is dressing the older child for school.

The kid picks up toys, punches a button, the toy talks and performs the damnest stunts you ever saw.

By age three the child is at a keyboard clicking on the apple when SpongeBob says "click on the apple". At six they are online and, you don't want to know! Playstation, XBox, you name it.

These people will be like jazz players melding to each nuance of the other players. Many will lose the ability for deep concentration. Others will not cope with the overload well - remember Leary's "drop out" mantra. But a few will be able adapt faster than we can imagine and still concentrate as needed - and they will be startling.

durr said at April 29, 2005 5:10 AM:

folks need to chk it periodically, not have it open and continually interrupt themselves to answer stupid shit

Tina said at May 9, 2005 5:39 PM:

At the moment, i currently have 2 IM screens up, one active and the other isnt responding. However, I find the observation of the drop in IQ very valid. For one thing, I am a 14 year old eighth grade student at an independant gifed school. I am online every night to check hwk, look up articles lkie this one, etc. etc. I've noticed with myself the short term distraction effect on intellegence and concentration, but the question I would like to pose has to do with long-term effects. I've read several articles on this subject and a couple of them mentioned the possible long-term effect of IMing on IQ, but does this have any validity? Also, would my generation, who has grown up with this type of stimulus, react differently to an experimental test? Would it be possible that, after (oh wow, an old aquaintance just immed me and I completely forgot what I was saying...)a number of years, a person could be, in a sense, aah, **tries to remember the word**, immuned against an IQ drop? As in, I could become so accustomed constant distraction that im no longer distracted? ALSO (bear with me... one more question...) How does this affect one's sleep?

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2005 6:06 PM:


Your biggest long-term downside from constant distractions is that you will not think through as many big thoughts and build as many big complex mental models in your head. While some learning is just the memorization of a lot of small facts other learning is, from the perspective of your brain, the construction of complex models of causes and effects between components of systems. Systems could be such things as economies, ecologies, organisms, genetic regulatory networks, or models of nuclei or solar systems.

In order to intellectually develop you have to build up complex models in which you organise your knowledge about the world. Then rather than just learning lots of separate facts you can place those facts in your mental models and even adjust your mental models to reflect how newly learned facts cause you to reevaluate the correctness of one or more of your existing models.

Does this make sense?

My problem with the constant interruptions is that you have a limited short term memory working set. If you get interrupted while working on some complicated body of information then something you were holding in short term memory gets lost. The chain of thoughts you were building up may be broken. Some better mental model that you mught have been able to synthesize from that information doesn't get built. Computers (and I'm a computer programmer) have efficient mechanisms for saving context when interrupted in order to be able to restore context when an interruption is complete. But human brains do not have that capacity. Your IM'ing is not going to build up that capacity. I seriously doubt that the size of human short term working memory can be built up by much as a result of continuously handling lots of interruptions.

Lots of environmental stimuli still can be beneficial to cognitive development. But whether they are depends on the content of those stimuli. If you get interrupted from a lecture on Aristotelian logic in order that a friend can explain one of W.D. Hamilton's evolutionary theories then the interrupts are going to give you a lot of information to feed your construction of models of the world. But if you get interrupted from learning calculus so that someone can gossip about a video game they are playing then that is not helping.

Think of the IQ drop as analogous to being inebriated. Eventually the effect wears off. But you still have lost that period of time when you could have been functioning at a higher intellectual level. Mental work that you could have accomplished during that time didn't get done. You didn't learn as much. You didn't accomplish as much. Put yourself thru that level of lower mental functioning for several hours a day every day for weeks and months and years on end and you will build up much fewer useful models of the world and some of your intellectual deveopment will be delayed for years.

Philip Zhou said at December 21, 2005 1:55 AM:

Now don't flame me if I'm wrong, but I think this is related to the autistic spectrum. Based on my extensive reading of the literature, I'm convinced that everyone has some degree of autism, and those with a significant degree of it will have asperger's syndrome such as myself and my girlfriend. We both are irritated extremely easily, especially by noise but pretty much by any distraction, to the point where we've build custom ultra-quiet computers and silenced dampened rooms. We've also got into some fights with noisy roommates in the past. Austistic people in general are very easily distracted or irritated. Anyway, I know that men are much more likely to have autism than females, so maybe this has something to do with it. Just speculation but I'm pretty convinced that this is at least a part of the true explanation.

Ashley Ross said at March 21, 2006 4:25 AM:

I'm a 14 year male with an IQ of 124, although i have had no special education or anything i believe it could be higher, and i am now starting to do home education as well as schooling education, i pass all my grades (english, S.A.T.S, 11+ ect) with above and including 97%. I am also supposedly very mature for my age, my interests are Music, Computing, Maths, science and english... There are a lot of "odd" things that i can do such as whenever i go near a pc it starts erroring, i even fried a proccessor without it being turned on (even at the back)... I constantly MSN and IM people and use up like 10 credit in like 4 days (with 300 free texts) could this be influincing my IQ?

Henry Savior said at May 17, 2006 2:56 PM:

I am 15 and in the 10th grade. fOr a while Iv'e been studying calculus but it seems that my brain does not follow it. It does not seem to make any sense. To learn calculus must you try to comprehend things diffrently than its normally used to in math.Im not sure how you are supposed to understand. I really don't unbdrstandhow it's possible to do it. Is there a special way you're supposed to think about it.

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