Distractions cause us pain because they diffuse our attention and cost us time and accuracy. This is because it puts the brain under greater cognitive load.
But there are some instances where distraction can be useful and help performance.
Such as at those times when top athletes “choke” at the critical moment because they start to focus too much on their performance. Distracting them here could actually help them to save the game. You may have had that experience yourself when you are focussing very hard on one thing while conscious of distractions such as other people around you talking, and notice that you can effectively block them out and lift your performance at the same time.
Researchers from the University of Basel have investigated the reason for this apparent contradiction for performance.
When the brain is subjected to higher cognitive load, switching to a less demanding and often less accurate strategy is where it all turns to custard and you end up making more mistakes: here performance decreases.
But in a situation where a multiple cue task involved using a similarity based judgment strategy, performance improves.
If a rules based strategy was being used and a similarity- based strategy then adopted then performance was diminished.
In other words we have to consider the cognitive strategies people rely on to understand how they might perform in complex work environments.
We all vary in how we respond to cognitive load.
Our performance depends less on the cognitive load itself and more on our choice of cognitive strategy to deal with it. This may help us in the future to predict the best circumstances for a particular individual to solve problems.
In a world where nothing can always be taken as being entirely black or white, multitasking while still considered unhelpful in many situations, does not always result in poorer judgement.
J. A. Hoffmann, B. von Helversen, J. Rieskamp. Deliberation’s Blindsight: How Cognitive Load Can Improve Judgments. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612463581
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