Adept multitaskers believe they are plowing through tasks when they juggle them. A new study shows they are wrong. Like earlier ergonomics-related research, the study casts extra tasks as counterproductive distractions. The Stanford University researchers have made news by showing that heavy media multitasking could harm more than efficiency.
The Stanford researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time,
In a Stanford news release about the study, which was published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, communications Professor Clifford Nass points out that high-tech jugglers are everywhere. "They’re suckers for irrelevancy," said the professor. "Everything distracts them."
After putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the research team of Eyal Ophir, Anthony Wagner and Professor Nass realized that the heavy media multitaskers pay a big mental price for their juggling – keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, sending text messages while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through an array of assignments.
The researchers started by testing a common assumption that people seemingly gifted at multitasking have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to. "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.
The study tested 100 college students rated high or low multitaskers. Using a series of electronic images of shapes of different colors, as well as letters and numbers, the researchers monitored the students’ focus, memory and distractibility.
In one experiment, the groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame. Told to ignore the blue rectangles, the low multitaskers had no problem complying. It was a different story with the high multitaskers, who were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images. The researchers described their performance as horrible.
The second test debunked the assumption that a superior ability to store and organize information could explain the multitasking “gift.” After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers showed little ability to remember when a letter made a repeat appearance.
"The low multitaskers did great," Ophir said. "The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains."
Left with the idea that high multitaskers must be able to switch from one thing to another faster and better than anyone else, the researchers presented the test subjects with images of letters and numbers at the same time and told them what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants. Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed.
"They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing," Ophir said. "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds."
The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they’re convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could. "That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information," said Wagner.
The researchers concluded that by doing less, you might be accomplishing more.
Source: Stanford University