UC researcher to test distraction

01:59, Jan 16 2013
air traffic control std
CONCENTRATE: A study will examine whether distraction improves performance in high-risk environments, such as air traffic control.

Could daydreaming, reading or doing a crossword puzzle during downtime at work hinder concentration when the workload suddenly increases?

A study will examine whether guided distraction improves worker performance in high-risk environments, such as air traffic control.

University of Canterbury psychology professor Deak Helton will carry out experiments to see whether guided distraction improves worker performance. 

He is a co-investigator for the Australian Research Council-funded project and is collaborating with the lead investigator, Associate Professor Mark Wiggins, at Sydney's Macquarie University.

Helton is testing to see if guided distraction improves worker performance in potentially dangerous environments to reduce the potential for error.

"Guided distraction is a secondary task a person carries out during low periods of workload. For example, when an air traffic controller or such has no or low traffic to control, they may do something else to pass the time,'' he said.


"This could be daydreaming or it could be another external task, such as doing a word puzzle or reading.

"Instead of letting the person do whatever they pick, we will look at getting workers to perform a secondary task that is not too distracting or hard to snap out of. This could provide them with something to fill time that is minimally intrusive or easy to disengage from.'' 

When workloads suddenly increased it could be difficult for an operator to re-engage with the primary task, Helton said.

The project was seeking to control the demand level of a secondary task so it was not so distracting that it led to poor primary task re-engagement.

He said the study would involve input from utility companies in New Zealand and Australia.

The Press