Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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."

Story continues below advertisement

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:


Story continues below advertisement

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,

Story continues below advertisement

every participant is assigned

one of 16 four-letter personality codes based on their learning preferences, decision-making habits, relations with others

and curiosity.

Sample question: Would you rather be considered a practical person or an ingenious person?


TheorY: An individual's desire for inclusion, control and

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Patrick White

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies