Study finds people who multitask often bad at it

Aug 24, 2009 BY ADAM GORLICK
Stanford researcher Eyal Ophir explains the study to a student.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Attention, multitaskers (if you can pay attention, that is): Your brain may be in trouble.

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, a group of Stanford researchers has found.

High-tech jugglers are everywhere - keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments.

But after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.

"They're suckers for irrelevancy," said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the . "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.

Is there a gift?

So 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.

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

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.

They were told to ignore the blue rectangles, and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that. But the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images. Their performance was horrible.

Because the high multitaskers showed they couldn't ignore things, the researchers figured they were better at storing and organizing information. Maybe they had better memories.

The second test proved that theory wrong. After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a lousy job at remembering when a letter was making 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."

Still puzzled

Puzzled but not yet stumped on why the heavy multitaskers weren't performing well, 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 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.

"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," said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. "That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information."

So maybe it's time to stop e-mailing if you're following the game on TV, and rethink singing along with the radio if you're reading the latest news online. By doing less, you might accomplish more.

Provided by Stanford University (news : web)

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x646d63
2 / 5 (4) Aug 24, 2009
Multitaskers are better at context switching than single-taskers. They may not be better at focusing on that which they switched to, but they're much better making that switch.

For example, find a single-tasker who is on the phone and ask them a question. If you are not completely ignored they may become flustered at being interrupted and have to make a substantial effort to listen to you.

Next, interrupt a multi-tasker while he's talking on the phone and he'll immediately give you his attention and respond. He may forget to listen to his wife on the phone, or try to listen to both conversations at the same time (and fail) but he won't ignore you or become flustered.

Single-taskers are better at focusing on a single task, and bad at switching tasks. Multi-taskers are better at switching, but maybe not as good as focusing. Seems pretty straight forward to me.

Pardon me while I make a phone call.
dev2000
3 / 5 (2) Aug 24, 2009
Welcome to the world of ADD. I believe ADD and genius-level creativity and problem solving are inseparable.

Wait... What were we talking about again?
KCD
not rated yet Aug 25, 2009
A real heavy multi-tasker is someone who can control to the information that he's receiving. He should at least consciously know what is actually happening around him and also is conscious to what he's doing.

For instance, He is asked to only recite an object and neglect irrelevant ones but he's successfully able to recite those that are irrelevant. That is a true heavy multi-tasker.

those who were experimented are those who can swiftly change from one thing to another and that makes him more confused.
docknowledge
3 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2009
"They're suckers for irrelevancy"...no, that's the effect what they're doing has.

I had a boss who would have someone in his cube, be on the phone, and typing on his terminal at the same time. He loved it. You could see it in his face -- he was elevated, excited.

He was totally annoyed with me that I'd shut my cell phone off, not respond to email after work hours. He's addicted to the adrenaline high. And...he wants everyone close to him to buy into the addiction. It's a classic situation.
hagureinu
not rated yet Aug 25, 2009
Well, I'm heavy multitasker and I can say from my experience that many things written in the article are true - I have problems with attention and concentration, I repeatedly loose context distracted by insignificant stimuli, I have awkward memory and often completely forget things I heard a second ago. That's all true and it's a high price. Still, I'm pretty sure there are benefits and the authors of this research just didn't do correct tests to find them. The obvious advantage of multtasking person is that he/she is able to simultaneously perceive and process more information that non-multitasking person. So you obviously need to search in the areas that require processing of large amounts of perceptions. In my view, multitasking might give lots of benefits on subconscious-level information processing, performing complex activities in background, analytical thinking, comprehending complex concepts and learning.
docknowledge
1 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2009
Well, we all multitask all the time. Even animals do. But there is a problem, here. My boss enjoyed the frenetic pace of instant messaging, online chat, email, cell, and personal conversation -- all at the same time! He was a smoker. He drank coffee. All stuff to elevate his blood pressure -- which in a controlled way, can make one feel pretty good. And those stimulants also made him think faster. So...basically...he was having a good time.

A downside is: It was extremely difficult to get him to focus on a problem that took more than a few minutes to resolve. But even worse than that...when faced with a problem that required deep thinking...it was obvious that he simply couldn't handle it at all. He was so used to dealing with mini-tasks -- his whole life -- that problems requiring an hour or two of quiet thinking -- they were entirely beyond the way he'd trained his brain to operate. He was helpless.
ithinkitsjustme
not rated yet Aug 25, 2009
Well, what can I say? Multitasking is in the blood. We can't change it. And even if we could, it's not so bad. We I believe get more than we "lose".

And then again, as dev2000 said:
Welcome to the world of ADD. I believe ADD and genius-level creativity and problem solving are inseparable.


After this, I've nothing to add.
hagureinu
5 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2009
Well, based on my personal experience, I can hardly believe that multitasking is the reason behind inability to solve complex problems. In my case, solving such problems that require deep thinking is my specialization. Many times I was able to solve problems other people just couldn't solve at all, no matter how much time they were given. At least to make some conclusion, you must conduct appropriate research.
docknowledge
1 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2009
hagureinu, I also am paid to solve very complex problems. There are a number of factors that stop people from being able to do my job. The main factor is not hyper-multitasking, but lack of curiosity and lack of imagination.

The boss I was describing, though, is curious and has an imagination. He suffers instead from the problem this article describes, which is that he gets a thrill from context switching. He loves being "busy". As I mentioned, with him, it's a visible, physical reaction of pleasure. For him, there's only one right best way to do things, and he's in a rush to get there. Once he's there, it's "mission accomplished". He measures his success by number of accomplishments. (And is critical of me, if I sit for ten minutes without typing at the keyboard. I'm not rushed, obviously I must not be doing anything.)
PaulLove
4 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2009
So the big problem I see with this is who/what determined if you were a good multitasker or a bad multitasker after all we don't come with lables.

Sooo we ran this expreriment and the people who were good multitaskers weren't, strikes me of the same vein of the Frog Jumping champion test where it was determined that a frog with no legs doesn't hear well.
malapropism
4 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2009
Multitaskers are better at context switching than single-taskers. They may not be better at focusing on that which they switched to, but they're much better making that switch.
[...]
Single-taskers are better at focusing on a single task, and bad at switching tasks. Multi-taskers are better at switching, but maybe not as good as focusing.


It seems to me that you are contradicting yourself in these definitions.

Context switching is the switching of focus from one process to another in order to perform some sort of operation on that other process. (There are many web pages providing accurate definitions so I won't belabour details here.) By definition therefore, switching in context involves the ability to de-focus from one process and re-focus on another; the "high-multitaskers" in the study obviously weren't able to do this. ('"They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," Ophir said.')

Perhaps what you intended is that "high-multitaskers" attempt to *rapidly* switch amongst several competing processes? From the article it seems that they achieve the rapid switching but not the re-focusing and that makes all the difference to the outcome of their efforts and their efficiency.

Perhaps docknowledge's comment about his/her boss being "addicted to the adrenaline high" is more on the mark? It seems reasonable to suppose that "high-multitasking" is a learned behaviour, reinforced by some sort of feedback (the emotional, intellectual and/or maybe physical high) and could be unlearned?

In addition, dev2000's comment that
... ADD and genius-level creativity and problem solving are inseparable.

doesn't seem to be supported by reported anecdotes of, or quotes from, people of [I would consider to be] genius-level creative or problem solving ability: a few that spring to mind from various biographies are Nikola Tesla, Einstein, Picasso.
Mr_Man
not rated yet Aug 27, 2009
I am going to make my wife read this article. Finally, I have some scientific evidence as to why I didn't accomplish everything on my "honey do" lists..
Mr_Man
not rated yet Aug 27, 2009
Well, what can I say? Multitasking is in the blood. We can't change it. And even if we could, it's not so bad. We I believe get more than we "lose".















And then again, as dev2000 said:







Welcome to the world of ADD. I believe ADD and genius-level creativity and problem solving are inseparable.












I have ADD and I have, from my experience, excellent problem solving abilities. I rarely fail when I need to problems solve in complicated situations, I actually thrive in those situations. That is from my own perspective though, I don't mean to sound arrogant.


I am also a creative person, however I wouldn't go as far as saying I am at a genius level in creativity, but I do pretty good in abstract thinking as well as music writing.


I do have a harder time staying on task during projects that take a long time where there is no "problem to solve". When the task is easy but time consuming I cannot stay focused to save my life.
x646d63
not rated yet Aug 27, 2009
It seems to me that you are contradicting yourself in these definitions.

Context switching is the switching of focus from one process to another in order to perform some sort of operation on that other process. [...] By definition therefore, switching in context involves the ability to de-focus from one process and re-focus on another;


But it says nothing about the quality of the focus. As you know (if you've ever watched Tiger Woods) some people can focus much better than others.

Tiger, even though he has almost unbelievable focus, is also a high-multitasker. This is evident when during his backswing someone takes a photo and he stops his backswing to prevent a mistake. Nobody can do that (except, apparently, Tiger.) That is high-multitasking.

My point is that a "high multitasker" is not someone who can do many things at once, but can easily interrupt a task to process information or act on another other task. But it says nothing about how well he will execute that task or process that information.

So rather than contradicting myself, I'm actually arguing with what a "high multi-tasker" actually is, or should be.

Perhaps what you intended is that "high-multitaskers" attempt to *rapidly* switch amongst several competing processes?


No. I said what I meant. High multi-taskers are able to rapidly and easily switch between tasks. They are good at the "context switch" -- the switch -- not necessarily good at the tasks.

From the article it seems that they achieve the rapid switching but not the re-focusing and that makes all the difference to the outcome of their efforts and their efficiency.


Maybe the people they studied acted that way, but as we all know life isn't binary. Some people excel at focusing, some excel at switching, some excel at neither and others excel at both.

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