More Harm Than Good? How Messages That Interrupt Can Make Us Vulnerable

Jenkins, Jeffrey L.; Anderson, Bonnie Brinton; Vance, Anthony; Kirwan, C. Brock; Eargle, David
December 2016
Information Systems Research;Dec2016, Vol. 27 Issue 4, p880
Academic Journal
System-generated alerts are ubiquitous in personal computing and, with the proliferation of mobile devices, daily activity. While these interruptions provide timely information, research shows they come at a high cost in terms of increased stress and decreased productivity. This is due to dual-task interference (DTI), a cognitive limitation in which even simple tasks cannot be simultaneously performed without significant performance loss. Although previous research has examined how DTI impacts the performance of a primary task (the task that was interrupted), no research has examined the effect of DTI on the interrupting task. This is an important gap because in many contexts, failing to heed an alert--the interruption itself--can introduce critical vulnerabilities. Using security messages as our context, we address this gap by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how (1) DTI occurs in the brain in response to interruptive alerts, (2) DTI influences message security disregard, and (3) the effects of DTI can be mitigated by finessing the timing of the interruption. We show that neural activation is substantially reduced under a condition of high DTI, and the degree of reduction in turn significantly predicts security message disregard. Interestingly, we show that when a message immediately follows a primary task, neural activity in the medial temporal lobe is comparable to when attending to the message is the only task. Further, we apply these findings in an online behavioral experiment in the context of a web-browser warning. We demonstrate a practical way to mitigate the DTI effect by presenting the warning at low-DTI times, and show how mouse cursor tracking and psychometric measures can be used to validate low-DTI times in other contexts. Our findings suggest that although alerts are pervasive in personal computing, they should be bounded in their presentation. The timing of interruptions strongly influences the occurrence of DTI in the brain, which in turn substantially impacts alert disregard. This paper provides a theoretically grounded, cost-effective approach to reduce the effects of DTI for a wide variety of interruptive messages that are important but do not require immediate attention.



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