The myth of multitasking


Since I work at a university and am around young adults all the time, I have long been aware that young people today are avid consumers of multimedia, who are adept at emailing, texting, listening to mp3 players, surfing the web, checking up on Facebook, etc. It seems like they are quite proficient at multitasking.

I have always been a poor multitasker. I cannot read or do any work that requires serious thinking if I can hear conversation or loud noises in the background. I have found that I cannot even listen to music in the background when reading. But I know people who seem to thrive on that kind of ambient sound and even deliberately go to coffee shops to do work such as grading papers or writing, things that would be impossible for me.

I had thought that my lack of ability to multitask was partly due to being old and not acquiring these skills while young, similar to my slow reaction time when playing video games (which results in being destroyed when playing them with my children) and my inability to manipulate my thumbs dexterously enough to use the small keys on cell phones without making numerous mistakes.

I thought my poor multitasking skills may also be due to a cognitive disability, similar to the one that prevents me from ever seeing the hidden 3-D images in those so-called autostereogram (‘Magic Eye’) pictures that were such a rage a few years ago. The Sunday papers used to have one and my daughters would look briefly at it and say, “Oh, look at the dolphins” or whatever it was that day whereas, despite my strenuous efforts at staring using all the recommended tricks, all I saw were colored dots and wiggly lines. I later learned that some people never see the hidden image, due to some feature of their visual-cognitive brain function. It was not reassuring to discover that I have a defective brain, and that there is no warranty.

But a study by Stanford researchers Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner titled Cognitive control in media multitaskers and published in 2009 the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to indicate that hardly anyone can really multitask and they are only deluding themselves that they can.

In an interview with the PBS program Frontline, lead researcher Clifford Nass said that it is possible to multitask certain things if those require different parts of the brain. For example, one might be able to cook and keep an eye on the children, or do gardening while listening to music or drive while talking. But classical psychology says that when it comes to doing more than one task that requires similar cognitive abilities, the brain simply cannot do that. What people do is try to rapidly switch their attention from one task to the next.

Nass and his colleagues hypothesized that to carry out successful multitasking of this latter sort required three distinct skills. One is the ability to filter, to detect irrelevancy, to be able to quickly distinguish between those things that are important and those that are not important. The second is the rapidity with which they could switch from one task to the next. The third is a greater ability to sort and organize the information in the brain so as to keep track of the results of their different tasks.

The researchers expected to find that people who were ‘high multitaskers’, i.e., people who tend to do multiple things, would be very good at least in one of those areas when compared to the ‘low multitaskers’, i.e., people like me who have to do things sequentially. What they were surprised to find was that the high multitaskers were terrible in all three areas.

So we know, for example, that people’s ability to ignore irrelevancy — multitaskers love irrelevancy. They get distracted constantly. Multitaskers are very disorganized in keeping their memory going so that we think of them as filing cabinets in the brain where papers are flying everywhere and disorganized, much like my office.

And then we have them being worse at switching from one task to another. … It’s very troubling. And we have not yet found something that they’re definitely better at than people who don’t multitask.

There is a serious cost to this. The researchers say that trying to multitask leads to deficiencies in analytical reasoning because people don’t stick to one thing long enough to think it through but instead shift to another task, thus thinking in fragments.

We worry about it, because as people become more and more multitaskers, as more and more people — not just young kids, which we’re seeing a great deal of, but even in the workplace, people being forced to multitask, we worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.

And it seems as if simply telling them that trying to multitask is bad does not have any effect.

One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more.

[V]irtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking. And one of the big new items here, and one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You’re really lousy at it. And even though I’m at the university and tell my students this, they say: “Oh, yeah, yeah. But not me! I can handle it. I can manage all these”.

One of the biggest delusions we hear from students is, “I do five things at once because I don’t have time to do them one at a time.” And that turns out to be false. That is to say, they would actually be quicker if they did one thing, then the next thing, then the next. It may not be as fun, but they’d be more efficient.

One interesting finding in the study was that there were no gender differences, which goes against the myth that women are either naturally good multitaskers or become so because of the multiple roles imposed on them by society, such as caregiver, housekeeper, breadwinner, etc. This may be an illusion that arose from the fact that the multiple tasks that they have traditionally had to do (keeping an eye on the children while cooking or cleaning the house and listening to the radio) largely involved different parts of the brain and thus did not pose any serious cognitive conflicts.

The big challenge will be how to wean people away from thinking they can multitask. We are not doing them any favors by letting them continue to delude themselves.

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