New! My Talk at Google's 2018 I/O Conference on Building Healthier Relations with Technology

The Hidden Costs of Multitasking

Recently, I did an interview with one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, Rob Hopkins, about the  fragmentation of attention in modern life. Hopkins is part of a growing wave of green thinkers who rightly worry about how technology is affecting our ability to solve big-picture problems such as climate change. Here’s a second excerpt from our wide-ranging  interview, which you can read or listen to on his great website, “Imagination Taking Power.”

Hopkins: I didn’t have email until maybe 13 years ago, Twitter until maybe 7 years ago, Facebook just a few years ago.  If we were to say this has been a 20 year experiment on a massive, massive scale, how would you summarize the interim findings of that experiment?”

Jackson: Well that’s a very big question!  Currently as I release a new updated edition of my Distracted book, I’m thinking a lot about distraction and how that affects people in new ways.

We often define distraction as being pulled to something secondary, but a lesser-known definition involves being pulled in pieces, being fragmented. That certainly describes life on- and off-line today.

And research shows that when people are avid multi-taskers, when their attention is splintered and abbreviated they actually are shown to have less ability to discern what’s trivial and what’s relevant in their environments.

Even more importantly, when we are jumping from task to task or person to person, we may be undermining our ability to be cognitively flexible, which is a core skill of creativity and problem-solving. In other words, studies show that when people are multi-tasking, they can absorb new information, they can learn, but they encode and store knowledge in more shallow ways, actually using different parts of their brain than if they were paying full attention. As a result, the new knowledge is less assimilated with other stored knowledge and so is less available for transfer to novel situations.

For example, if you multitask your way through your math homework, you can solve the kind of math problem that you studied, but you likely can’t tackle a related but different kind of math problem. Or the surgeon who multitasked her way through med school might be able to fix a routine problem that arises in the operating room, but may be flummoxed when a new, rare complication arises.

I’ve had professors tell me that because kids are multi-tasking their way through an introductory college class, they’ll get to the second level psychology or history class, and it’s as if they hadn’t even taken the first course. They have learned the material in shallow ways.

Additional research shows that the presence of a cell phone, even if it’s silent and turned off, unconsciously siphons our attention away from the moment at hand, so we’re less focused. But as well, we become less able to think in flexible ways. The presence of the phone, beckoning to us even unconsciously, lowers fluid intelligence, which is described as the ability to interpret and solve unfamiliar problems.  We simply don’t have the capacity to multitask and think nimbly!

So, we are beginning to discover that our habits of mind and our technologies may be making us less discerning and flexible cognitively – skills that are crucial to imagination and higher-order thinking.  That’s alarming and could be linked to the kind of tribalism and risk aversion that we see so often today.

The second assessment I would make about technology as a social experiment is that the instantaneity of information is being shown to undermine our willingness to think in complex ways. And that’s very damaging to our capacity to imagine.

Studies both at Yale and Harvard show that a brief online search for information, just a bit of googling, makes people less willing later to wrestle with a complex problem. Their “need for cognition,” a measure of one’s willingness to struggle with a problem and see it through, drops dramatically after searching online. As well, a bit of searching leads to a kind of hubris; we begin to think that we know more than we actually do. People begin to over-estimate their ability to answer similar type of questions without the computer.

Why? Scientists believe that when information is so instant, we begin to think that answers are just there for the plucking, that “knowing” is easy. One researcher who’s been involved in this work says, “We never have to face our ignorance online.”

What are the implications of this? In our current culture, “knowing” is becoming something brief, perfunctory, neat, packaged, and easily accessible. Yet complex murky problems demand firstly the willingness not to know, to understand that the time for ease in thinking has ended and the real work of reflective cognition must begin.

And second, difficult problems demand tenacity, a willingness to struggle and connect and reflect on the problem and its possible solutions and move beyond the first answer that springs to mind. This is when we must extricate ourselves from automaticity in thinking and call consciously upon the side of ourselves that can decouple from tried-and-true answers, gather more information, test possibilities, and build new understanding. Much of this cognition demands both flexibility and a willingness to grapple with the unknown.

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