The modern workplace is beset by distraction. Who can ignore the latest Stephen Colbert clip? Or the serial prattler who spends time guffawing with co-workers than working? Or that David Hasselhoff burger-eating video on YouTube?
With the unveiling last week of a new test designed to weed out distraction-prone workers, it may be time to start focusing on work.
In short order, the test, developed by an Israeli attention researcher, could join the battery of psychometric evaluations already imposed upon millions of employees and job applicants.
A widely publicized 2006 study by technology research firm Basex estimated that distractions rob 2.1 hours from the average worker's day.
Nillie Lavie, who studies human attention at University College in London and developed the new test, found that some people are up to three times more prone to disruptions than others.
"These are the types that find themselves in a room and can't remember what they came there [for]or absent-mindedly place their car keys in the refrigerator," Dr. Lavie said. "They also tend to make mistakes on the job."
On a recent morning, Dr. Lavie herself left home carrying her cordless home phone in her handbag. "We're all prone to it to some degree," she said.
In Dr. Lavie's computerized test, a single large letter - either an x or an n - flashed before subjects for one-eighth of a second. Subjects had to identify the letter as quickly as possible. Dr. Lavie then introduced a smaller, "distractor" letter on the periphery of the screen. Subjects' response times tailed off immediately.
Some of them identified the incorrect distractor letter every time.
"Interestingly enough, when the test was over, these people thought they had done quite well," Dr. Lavie said.
Chatty co-workers, incoming e-mail and pop-up ads replicate the distractor letters in an office setting, she said.
Afterward, in extensive interviews, the subjects who did poorly on the test also reported being absent-minded. Dr. Lavie said companies could use her test to screen out chronic time-wasters.
"You could be a brilliant computer programmer," she said. "But if you can't keep your mind focused on a single task, your company would have been better off hiring a less brilliant, but better focused programmer."
Her research arrives at an opportune time. Human resources managers are becoming increasingly aware of time and money wasted on office interruptions. Psychometric tests measuring the work habits, behaviour and aptitude of job applicants are in common use at large Canadian companies, but distractibility could be a new addition.
"It has not come up," said Claude Balthazard, a director at the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario and a former psychometrician for the Public Service Commission of Canada.
"There are a number of tests measuring cognitive style and analytical thinking, but this is the first [study]I've heard of that would focus specifically on distractibility."
Dr. Balthazard admitted that the test could be useful, but also said that distractibility could be a passing HR trend. "Emotional intelligence was all the rage a few years ago and a number of tests arose around that," he said. "But these things were more fads than anything."
Others warn that a distractibility test could open employers up to lawsuits. "A person might be easily distracted because they have a disability," said Grace Rivers, director of corporate relations at Addeco Canada, a recruitment firm that administers psychometric tests. "If you ruled them out of a job, it would be blatant discrimination."
Dr. Lavie is unperturbed. "The same two people might enjoy saying hi to a co-worker passing by their desk. But my test shows which ones will go right back to work and which ones will go off into a daze."
Put to the test
Studies have found that a battery of psychometric tests is a much more accurate way of gauging an applicant's competence than an informal interview. Here are a few of the most popular:
Theory: People react with either dominance, influence, steadiness or compliance (DISC) to a given situation. Based on the work
of Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston, better known as the creator of Wonder
Sample question: Choose the word that most describes you and the word that least describes you in a work situation: gentle, persuasive, humble or original.
Theory: Borrowing heavily from Swiss psychologist Carl Jung,
every participant is assigned
one of 16 four-letter personality codes based on their learning preferences, decision-making habits, relations with others
Sample question: Would you rather be considered a practical person or an ingenious person?
TheorY: An individual's desire for inclusion, control and
affection can be determined by
a final ratio-based measurement. Originally developed in 1958
for the U.S. Navy.
Sample question: When people are doing things together, I tend to join them a) usually, b) often, c) sometimes, d) occasionally, e) rarely or f) never.