In 2005 I was commissioned by Porter-Novelli, the London publicists of Hewlett-Packard, to supervise a small in-house experiment on the negative effects of “always-on” technology, dubbed “infomania”. This was to accompany a large-scale survey of around 1000 people conducted by polling company TNS, revealing the extent of misuse of technology among UK workers. For example, 62% would check email and text messages out of hours and when on holiday, and 20% would interrupt a business or social meeting to respond to an email or telephone message. The findings of the experimental part of the study, for which I was responsible, were as follows:
Eight Porter Novelli employees (4 male and 4 female) were tested twice – once in quiet conditions and once in distracting conditions (mobile phones ringing and e-mails arriving). Parallel forms of a matrices-type IQ test were used. The design was balanced with respect to sex, order of test conditions, and order of IQ test forms. Measures of skin conductance, heart rate and blood pressure were taken under both conditions as well as self-reported stress ratings.
Effect of distraction on IQ
Results showed clearly that technological distraction diminished IQ test performance (mean scores dropped from 143.38 achieved under quiet conditions to 132.75 under “noisy” conditions).
The impact of distraction was greater for males (145.50 down to 127) than for females (141.25 down to 138.50). Putting that another way, males were superior in quiet conditions, females were superior in the distraction condition. This is consistent with the idea that women are better than men at “multi-tasking”.
Noisy conditions caused a striking increase in self-reported stress. Ratings on a 0-10 scale of “stress experienced during the test” increased from 2.75 to 5.5 for males and 4.75 to 6.75 for females. Note that in addition to the main effect of...