Pay attention, multitaskers!

STANFORD (US)—What do people who multitask have that gives them an edge? Apparently not much, according to a new study.

Those 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, a study from Stanford University finds.

Heavy media multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says study coauthor Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “Everything distracts them.”

Social scientists have long assumed that it’s impossible to process more than one string of information at a time. The brain just can’t do it. But many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to.

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

They put 100 students through a series of three tests and came to the conclusion that multitasking carries a heavy price.

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

In each of their tests, the researchers split their subjects into two groups: those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking and those who don’t.

In the first experiment multitaskers were distracted by images they were told to ignore and performed worse than the other group who had no problem doing so. The researchers thought the first group may have stronger memories and be better at storing and organizing information. But the next experiment proved that theory wrong when the multitaskers didn’t do well remembering a letter sequence either.

“The low multitaskers did great,” Ophir says. “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.”

Puzzled but not yet stumped, the researchers conducted a third test. If the heavy multitaskers couldn’t filter out irrelevant information or organize their memories, perhaps they excelled at switching from one thing to another faster and better than anyone else.

Wrong again, the study found.

The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed 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 the light multitaskers.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir explains. “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.

“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” says Wagner, associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

The findings were published in the Aug. 24 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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