Boring Jobs Dull the Mind

We already knew this, but it’s good to reinforce the lesson:

In the study, Dr Eichele and his colleagues asked participants to repeatedly perform a “flanker task”—an experiment in which individuals must quickly respond to visual clues.

As they did so, brain scans were performed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

They found the participants’ mistakes were “foreshadowed” by a particular pattern of brain activity.

“To our surprise, up to 30 seconds before the mistake we could detect a distinct shift in activity,” said Dr Stefan Debener, of Southampton University, UK.

“The brain begins to economise, by investing less effort to complete the same task.

“We see a reduction in activity in the prefrontal cortex. At the same time, we see an increase in activity in an area which is more active in states of rest, known as the Default Mode Network (DMN).”

This has security implications whenever you have people watching the same thing over and over again, looking for anomalies: airport screeners looking at X-ray scans, casino dealers looking for cheaters, building guards looking for bad guys. It’s hard to do it correctly, because the brain doesn’t work that way.

EDITED TO ADD (4/28): This video demonstrates the point nicely.

Posted on April 26, 2008 at 6:37 AM18 Comments


Chris Samuel April 26, 2008 7:51 AM

New Scientist had an article back in November on how using computer games for people doing routine tasks trying to spot rare targets might improve their hit rate.

Even with the TSA’s method of rotating the screeners every 20 minutes they found that “when targets occur 2 per cent of the time, people miss between 30 and 40 per cent of them“.

Michael Foord April 26, 2008 8:35 AM

Hey – we could make them wear scanners themselves and jolt them with electricity everytime the patterns of low concentration appeared!

It might be harder to find people to take the jobs though of course…

roenigk April 26, 2008 9:06 AM

Additional automation was added to the air traffic control system that would predict and advise controllers when and how to direct aircraft under their control (i.e. ‘tell Delta 109 to descend and maintain 10,000’).

The controlled test would throw errors into the mix. They found that the controllers stopped thinking for themselves, placing too much trust in the software.

I suppose the brain was ‘economising’.

GregW April 26, 2008 10:31 AM

This monitoring alertness issue is not just relevant for TSA and security monitoring but for saving lives everyday in contexts like lifeguarding.

My wife worked in college for Disney as a “slide operator” at one of their water parks one summer.

They were taught that studies had shown attention would start to wander after 20 minutes in the same environment. As a result, to ensure the slide operators had maximum alertness to safety issues (“quickly responding to visual clues” in the parlance of this newer study), Disney would rotate the slide operators from one station to another, at the tops or bottoms of various slides, every 20 minutes.

(I’m glad to see the first poster here Chris Samuel mention that the TSA likewise rotates every 20 minutes.)

The implication of this newer research to me is that A) perhaps we can have a more personalized finding than just adopting the statistical rule that on average we should rotate all people every 20 minutes; different people might have different threshholds and their rotation schedule after initial one-time testing could be adjusted appropriately. And B), the lack of alertness could itself eventually be monitored on a reliable basis as circumstances vary throughout the day or environment or task set.

Roy April 26, 2008 10:49 AM

Compare a sentinel with a hunter.

The sentinel walks a fixed route at a fixed rate and sees the same ‘movie’ again and again and again, which puts his brain into a trance. His perception and memory get dulled. The longer he does this, the worse he gets.

A hunter is constantly changing what’s in front of him, constantly changing the ‘movie’. The large quiet parts are suspenseful because when the action breaks it will break fast and he needs to be keyed up for it. The more hunting one does, the better he gets at it.

Homeland Security has fielded a vast army of sentinels at a huge expense with nothing (not really) to show for it. If you want to catch terrorists, you need to hunt them.

Rai April 26, 2008 11:22 AM

Well some hunters sit quietly on stands, for long periods, while being aware of the wind direction (game will approach from downwind)
a better way of doing it would be to put the video out to the internet and offer rewards to anyone who spots a ‘hit’ that pans out. the TSA employees could be used to sort out the false information from the good hits, the people who never get it right would be marked as low credence and their hits would not be reviewed at the same immediacy, and they should reinforce the system by having the ‘tigerteams’ send testers for them to catch, a hit on the real terrorist or the tigerteam would produce a reward that is enough to keep the game going and sharpen the skills of the good players.
there is nothing like a reward to condition the right people to do this,
If you are hired with out an aptitude test that says you would be good at it, and are paid for sitting there appearing to pay attention, there is no incentive. however, some shut ins who have the choice of regular television or playing this for a reward might find that some people are capable of doint this at a much higher level than others.

I think that driveing while holding a cell phone to your ear should be grounds for a ticket. there are phones that are hands free that can be used in cars and the people who hold the phone are just willing to bet your life on their inattention.

Henning Makholm April 26, 2008 8:56 PM

GregW: Of course, once personal testing is introduced, employers would just stop hiring people who don’t fit into their rotation scheme. Will that be a good thing or a bad thing? (I’m not sure myself; it kinda depends on your perspective).

Rai: Some countries do ban use of handheld phones while driving a vehicle. (Denmark is one). The actual safety effect of this is debated; some studies indicate that as much inattention results from hands-free phones or from conversing with a passenger. And the ban does not cover handheld microphones for non-“phone” radios.

Fake51 April 27, 2008 10:55 AM

@Henning: do you have sources for those studies? To the best of my un-sourced knowledge, talking to a passenger does NOT cause inattention in the same way that talking to a person on the phone (whether on a hands-free set or not).
Furthermore: you cannot debate the safety effect of banning handheld phones by stating that using hands-free phones or talking to a passenger leads to the same amount of inattention. At most, you have shown that using hands-free phones and talking to passengers is also problematic and should be regulated.


rai April 27, 2008 11:19 AM

at the very least, the police should look at cell phones at the site of an accident, with a view toward comparing the emergency call with previous calls to see if there is a likely hood of the person having been on the phone.
with hands free, reaction time must be quicker than if you don’t take time to set down the phone, possibley also telling the other person on the line a word or two,

Anonymous April 27, 2008 2:07 PM

I pay for gas with rolled nickles.
The guy at the gas station gets bored counting them ($30.00) when I get gas. If I want to really dull his mind I could pay with loose nickels. Credit cards are easier, but I figure gas should go to nickels as more people pay with them.
The rules of the competition are the rules. Why make it easy when you can make it difficult and less boring at the same time?

“An unofficial variety of the wartime coin dated 1944 was made in 1954 when counterfeit nickels were produced by Francis LeRoy Henning of Erial, New Jersey. He had previously been arrested for counterfeiting $5 bills. The 1944 nickels were quickly spotted since Henning neglected to add the large mintmark of the Philidelphia mint (P).” numismaticenquirer
A classic downgrade. It cost a dime to make a nickel. As fuel cost go up, hauling nickels around gets more expensive. Truckers might want to use quarters or half dollars with diesel.

thought April 27, 2008 8:57 PM

Intervening to prevent the brain from going into rest mode could have the effect of making people “hypervigilant” – a symptom of neurosis or more profound mental illness. Stress at work has been increasingly linked to heart attacks. I wonder what national health care expenditures would look like in a culture that implemented technologies of hypervigilance and constant stress. Would anyone even want to belong to that culture other than a few top entrepreneurs poised to profit off squeezing short term bursts of productivity out the majority?

Where is our aspiration to a better civilization? Why is disrupting a natural process even being posited as desirable? I think implementing such technologies should rapidly be defined as a crime akin to exploitation and torture.

By the way, I find the technology that reads and communicates your emotions (the new gaming headset) just as creepy. Do gamers really want to project their spontaneous emotions? You’d think they’d want control over what they communicate to others as part of the game, as well as opportunity to protect their privacy/anonymity. I can’t begin to imagine the misuses of this technology in the hands of corporate command-and-control interests. Combine publication of emotions with legal intervention into your personal brain activity, and the scenario could be well beyond 1984.

Randy April 28, 2008 7:11 AM

Didn’t I see an article where the X-ray machines at security checkpoints would add an image of a banned item periodically? That way the TSA screeners are kept alert and could be tested for accuracy at the same time.

or did i dream that,

MikeA April 28, 2008 11:54 AM

In re: Sentinels..

One of my college jobs was as a night watchman. To keep it a little less boring, I would vary my route through the plant, trying to not hit the same stations at the same time, and taking different routes between them. One supervisor actually bawled me out for it. He wanted the watchclock timestamps for any given station to be exactly (within one minute) at the same time after the hour, every hour, every day. Fortunately, he only lasted a couple weeks, but I did wonder if he had a motive for that method.

Chris S April 28, 2008 1:05 PM

@MikeA – re: precise watchclock timestamps

I assume you’re implying that superprecise patrols are a poor security practise, as they make you highly predictable, and potentially allow intruders to simply avoid you because they know when and where you will be.

I think Bruce has mentioned before that in prisons, schedules do not run tightly against a clock. Stretching the point, it’s noted at the zoo that the meerkats are fed with randomly dropped mealworms, so that they maintain a robust foraging behaviour. (1)

Oddly – given the topic of this thread – this might have the perverse effect of making the prison population hypervigilant, whereas a boring routine might actually make the population more compliant because of their dulled minds.

Of course, if the zoo results are anything to go by, reintroduction of “dulled mind” inmates would likely cause even more significant problems.


Akasha April 29, 2008 12:23 PM

Making people wear scanners searching for reduced brain activity that you can safely say will happen at some point just seems silly to me. Instead of trying to catch what you know will eventually happen if the employee in question is doing something monotonous, try to improve the system.

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