A psychologist at the University College London has designed a computer based test that may reveal how easily an individual can be distracted.
Professor Nilli Lavie claims that her scientific test can be used as another assessment tool during the recruitment process, and may be beneficial in fields where employee distraction can lead to fatal errors.
"When you are easily distracted, you are more liable to do things like put your keys in the fridge or call out 'come in' when answering the phone. These are the more amusing consequences of distraction but distraction can have more serious implications. For example, it is known to be associated with a higher risk of being involved in various types of accidents such as car and workplace accidents," said Professor Lavie, whose research has been published in the Association for Psychological Science journal.
This new test measures subjects' accuracy and reaction times when they are exposed to distractions, and effectively filters out candidates who are easily distracted.
"This test could act as another form of psychometric testing for employers who want to know how focused the staff they are hiring are likely to be. Some jobs can be undertaken very well even if you are prone to being distracted. For example, you can be a great scientist or writer and still be absent-minded! But there are many areas where productivity critically depends on the ability of staff to stay focused, yet current psychometric tests do not measure it," said Professor Lavie.
She says that the test correlates with responses given to the 'Cognitive Failures Questionnaire' that predicts a person's level of distractibility, provided that the subject answers honestly.
"Relying on questionnaires to assess how easily distracted potential employees might be obviously has its downsides - people are not always honest about their negative attributes during interviews," said Professor Lavie.
"People come away from our test thinking they've done really well and haven't been distracted at all when in fact their response times increase and they tend to make more mistakes; showing that they have been distracted. So the test is objective and there's no way of doctoring the results," she added.
Sixty-one subjects took a short computerised test during which letters, acting as distractions, flashed up on screen. The subjects were asked to ignore the distracter letters and focus on the odd-one-out in the circle of letters.
The participants were asked to rapidly press the relevant key on a keyboard whenever they located the odd-one-out, so reaction times and the effects of distracters on performance could be measured.
The second finding in the study was that all participants, whether they are generally easily distracted or not, were far less distracted when they were performing the more difficult task. Since the brain was loaded with information that was relevant to the task, there was no extra brain capacity for processing distracting information and so even people who are more easily distracted are able to focus all their attention on the task in hand.
"This second finding shows that, even if you are more easily distracted than others, you can decrease your susceptibility to being distracted. This could have important implications for increasing attention and performance. I am currently working on specific applications for education that aim to improve attention in school pupils and reduce the likelihood of them being distracted both in class and when doing homework. We could make commercial applications of the distraction test available on demand," Professor Lavie said.