Study Finds Multitaskers Poor Performers Since Easily Distracted

August 31, 2009 at 7:24 am | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | 2 Comments

From the Stanford University News (8/24/09)

Nass and his colleagues, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, set out to learn what gives multitaskers their edge. What is their gift?

“We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Ophir, the study’s lead author and a researcher in Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

Nass used 3 tests that involved noticing changes in short term abstractions, such as whether two rectangles changed position, whether a letter had previously appeared in sequence, and attending to attributes of letters or numbers in a mixed set.  In all cases multitaskers did worse than non-multitaskers since they were easily distracted.

From the little I’ve read of this study (I could certainly have missed important details) I don’t think the study goals were aimed properly.  If one assumes for the moment that multitasking is an intentional activity meant to achieve a purpose, the natural question is: what is that purpose?  The study seems to look for side effects of multitasking behavior, but without a hypothesis about what the purpose is.  I believe the purpose may be better handling of multiple tasks that have each have intermittent stimuli.  In other words, tasks where there are many gaps when your attentiveness is not needed.  For example, building a piece of furniture requires long stretches where one must wait for glue or varnish to dry.  Likewise, staring at an email inbox for 8 solid hours would not reward the user since there are gaps of many minutes between messages.  Multitasking – checking email while waiting for a coat of polyurethane to dry – enables both tasks to be completed more effectively. I did a blog entry on “Mandatory Multitasking” back in 2006 on this multitasking pattern.

I think a more accurate test would be a long-term writing assignment (say, summarizing a set of three twenty page papers into a 10 page paper in 4 hours) while playing an investment game that rewards reaction to events (such as payoffs for noticing trends that decreases rapidly over time).  Add some random interruptions as well for an extra element.  Quality of the summary and final investment tally would provide a weighted score.  The participant would have to be good at interrupting themselves and resuming their long-running task (“scanning the horizon”) in order to excel at the financial part of the score. 

As designed, the Nass test tested attention shielding (a capability for pushing unimportant messages and content further from the observer’s focus). The test I propose above evaluates interruptability instead. The study’s abstract confirms this as it defines multitaskers by attention shielding rather than self-controlled task switching (“heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.”)

That said, I’m not positive or convinced that multitasking is intentional and purposeful.  But I think the possibility must be considered.  In this case, considering its purpose can guide development of experiments that test its value against its intended purpose.  It also reframes the issue.  The issue may be that some multitaskers miscategorize some tasks as intermittent (such as driving or air traffic control) that they shouldn’t rather than all multitasking on all tasks being suboptimal.  Or maybe some multitaskers have difficulty breaking long-running tasks up into smaller tasks that provide interruptible boundaries.  But I don’t think that multitaskers are some sort of dysfunctional species. 



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  1. I’d like to see the full report, but until then I admit I find the significance of the term ”heavy MEDIA multitaskers” unclear. I’d rather see data on heavy multitaskers, period. We don’t know that multimedia is the issue – what about “heavy plain-text-reading multitaskers”?

    • I’m suspecting “media multitaskers” means kids that juggle TV, email, mobile devices, etc. at the same time. Why did they study those people instead of what you suggested (““heavy plain-text-reading multitaskers”)? It could be that the researchers were trying to explore a narrative about how multi-tasking kids are screwing up their brains (either literally or figuratively). So “media” introduces the lifestyle and Gen Y angle. If that’s true, the study seems biased towards a particular view and result from the start.

      I’m trying to get more info on the study from the researchers as there are many unanswered questions in the news articles. I don’t want to disparage the research without knowing more, but I certainly have questions such as yours.

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