Air traffic controllers, aircraft pilots and surveillance operators carry out several complex tasks at the same time in situations that are often beyond their control. They are also confronted with many sources of distraction and are regularly interrupted. Returning to the primary task requires a significant cognitive effort, as the state of a dynamic task following an interruption is different from its pre-interruption state. François Vachon, a professor in the School of Psychology at Université Laval, is seeking to determine the role played by memory and attention in resuming a task that has been interrupted.
A pre-interruption warning was found to improve task resumption time and resulted in faster post-interruption decision-making.
He conducted a series of experiments in which participants were immersed in a computer-assisted simulation of the work of a radar surveillance operator. Most studies to date have sought to facilitate post-interruption task resumption by providing information about events that occurred in the operator’s absence. The results have been inconclusive and such solutions appear to place an added cognitive burden on participants. François Vachon wanted to test whether a pre-interruption solution could help operators regain control of the primary task.
Participants were notified, or not, of an interruption eight seconds before it took place. A pre-interruption warning was found to improve task resumption time and resulted in faster post-interruption decision-making. In addition, participants appeared to experience less cognitive demand because, although the state of the task had changed in their absence, they had been able to memorize the screen prior to the interruption and could pick up where they left off. It is impossible to eliminate or predict every interruption, but advance warning of an impending interruption could facilitate the resumption of the task, thereby reducing the risk of error. This could be an effective solution for workers and an inexpensive option for businesses.