Recovering from an interruption: Investigating speed-accuracy tradeoffs in task resumption strategy

in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Journal article


Interruptions are disruptive because they take time to recover from, in the form of a resumption lag, and lead to an increase in the likelihood of errors being made. Despite an abundance of work investigating the effect of interruptions on routine task performance, little is known about whether there is a link between how quickly a task is resumed following an interruption (i.e., the duration of the postinterruption resumption lag) and the likelihood that an error is made. Two experiments are reported in which participants were interrupted by a cognitively demanding secondary mental arithmetic task while working on a routine sequential data-entry task. In Experiment 1 the time-cost of making an error on the primary task was varied between conditions. When errors were associated with a high time-cost penalty, participants made fewer errors and resumed the primary task more slowly than when errors were associated with a low time-cost penalty. In Experiment 2 participants were prohibited from resuming the primary task quickly by a 10-s system lockout period following the completion of the interrupting task. This lockout period led to a significant reduction in resumption errors because the lockout prohibited fast, inaccurate task resumptions. Taken together, our results suggest that longer resumption lags following an interruption are beneficial in terms of reducing the likelihood of errors being made. We discuss the practical implications of how systems might be designed to encourage more reflective task resumption behavior in situations where interruptions are commonplace.