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Can a strong ‘working memory’ help prevent on-the-job distraction?

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Ann Arbor, MI — “Working memory” may play a key role in helping workers avoid getting distracted, results of a recent University of Michigan and Google study suggest.

“Working memory” is defined as the “ability to hold and manipulate information simultaneously in one’s mind,” a U-M press release states. “In other words, when intrusive thoughts enter the mind, working memory is needed to keep track of the thoughts one should remain focused on.”

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 2,600 people who reported their physical and psychological happenings at work and home. Participants assessed job demands and resources, as well as disclosed family problems from the past 12 months.

To assess working memory, the researchers gave the participants a series of numbers one at a time. The participants attempted to repeat those strings of numbers backward, beginning with sets of two numbers all the way up to an eight-digit set.

The researchers found that “as people reported experiencing more family problems during the last year, the more they felt their job was demanding. This showed family problems seeping into their assessment of work,” the release states.

It continues: “This relationship does not hold for individuals with high working memory because they had an increased ability to prevent the stresses of the family domain from acting as a distraction to their work. This does not suggest that individuals with higher working memory experience fewer family problems – they’re just better able to fend off those distractions.”

The study was published online in the journal Community, Work & Family.

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