Memory, distractions, and performance

May 4, 2007

I think as instructional designers, we’re sometimes prone to providing too much information to our learners. This is especially true when we’re designing blended learning programs which tend to have more touch points for learners.

I came across this post from Tim Ferriss who was writing about the short-term email outages at RIM a couple of weeks ago which had Blackberry users frantic. He compared Blackberries to the top anti-productivity product of all-time- marijuana:

In 2005, a psychiatrist at King’s College in London administered IQ tests to three groups: the first did nothing but perform the IQ test, the second was distracted by e-mail and ringing phones, and the third was stoned on marijuana. Not surprisingly, the first group did better than the other two by an average of 10 points. The e-mailers, on the other hands, did worse than the stoners by an average of 6 points.

The effects on long-term memory when stoned include remembering otherwise forgotten events (when consciously trying to remember) and spontaneously remembering things that have not been thought of in years, often memories that are the wrong ones, not the ones desired. The effects on short-term memory when stoned include shortened memory span for conversations including forgetting the start of a sentence before it is finished, forgetting what the conversation is about before it has ended, and logically (intelligible) completing a sentence even though the start has been forgotten. False memories occurring when stoned include thinking you said something that you’ve only thought about saying, thinking something is a memory when it turns out to be a fantasy, and deja  vu. State-specific memory occurs when the events while stoned are stored in memory but cannot be retrieved in an ordinary state of consciousness (but can when stoned again). Reading comprehension while stoned decreases remembrance of what was read (Tart, 1971).

Can we compare the distractions of email and ringing phones to the distraction of being presented with too much information? I think so. Remember the “seven plus or minus two” rule published by George Miller? Miller described working memory capacity as seven plus or minus two chunks of information (Miller, 1956). Clark (2003) went on to add that chunk size is relative to prior experience (experts are able to use their limited capacity to greater advantage than novices because they can bring larger chunks of information into it – they use schemas). Learning requires the active transformation of content from the environment into new knowledge and skills in memory than can be accessed when needed on the job. Working memory is where active processing and learning take place. One major role of instruction is to keep working memory from getting overloaded so that its limited capacity can be devoted the learning process. Attention is an important cognitive process to manage the limited capacity of working memory (Clark, 2003).

Today’s younger workers are multi-taskers. An article in this month’s HR Magazine cites a study by the staffing firm Spherion indicating 90% of 18-24 year olds feel that listening to an iPod while working improves job satisfaction and productivity. A research contractor for a defense contractor, Susan Revillar Bramlett – in the same article – says “the constant stimuli from video and computer games have caused millennials to be bored if there isn’t enough information coming in to keep our brains busy.”

If “distractions” (20 web links, IMing during a presentation, etc.) harm on-the-job performance due to decreased memory capacity, we might want to revisit the seven plus or minus two rule.

Gary has a great post on the important implications for the management of organizational work and for learning related to information overload that’s a must read.

Miller, G.A. (1956) The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63: 81-97.

Clark, R. (2003) Building expertise: Cognitive methods for training and performance improvement. ISPI, Washington, D.C.

Tart, C. (1971) On Being Stoned. Science and Behavior Books: Palo Alto, California. Retrieved herePhoto: Simone Van Den Berg,

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