Two years ago, I wrote about research that found that those people who tried to multitask (i.e., switch rapidly between different cognitive tasks) were highly inefficient in procession information when compared to those who did the same work sequentially. They suffered in all three major areas that would be necessary to multitask: the ability to filter (i.e., to detect irrelevancy so as to be able to quickly distinguish between those things that are important and those that are not), the rapidity with which they could switch from one task to the next, and the ability to sort and organize the information in the brain so as to keep track of the results of their different tasks.
But unfortunately people still try to multitask, suffering under the delusion that they are good at it. It seems like they are fretful about missing out on some important development even when the chances of that are highly remote. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (unfortunately behind a paywall) researcher SuHua Huang studied college students and her findings are discouraging.
Her observations revealed that students seemed to have difficulty putting away their Internet-capable cellphones during class, often keeping them on their laps or in their hands. Some students explained that they needed to do so to keep from missing a message from family members or friends or to pick up extra hours at their jobs.
Cellphone usage in class became so ubiquitous that Ms. Huang said it “reached the point of obsession.” Few of the students she observed followed instructions, took notes, or brought their textbooks to class.
“Many students often asked repeatedly how to do assignments even though the instructors explained several times,” Ms. Huang wrote. Some students completed their assignments and sent them to their instructors in the middle of class.
I never had even the self-delusion that I was good multitasker and the research on its drawbacks convinced me to give up trying altogether. So now when I go to meetings or talks I avoid taking my iPad or laptop because I know I am addicted to the internet and so must take deliberate steps to avoid the temptation to do something else just because my interest momentarily lags in what is going on around me. But I notice that many of my colleagues are openly or surreptitiously still doing this with their electronic devices, so this is not just a problem with young people but with almost everyone who has immediate access to the internet.