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Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers

It’s late, and I’m flying to the Midwest tomorrow, so this will be short. But I want to chime in a bit on a new, small but important research study out of Stanford this week. There are already a number of media outlets writing about the study, which in a nutshell indicates that heavy multitaskers aren’t doing their juggling all that well. This is important. While we’ve seen a tremendous body of research showing that most multitasking is inefficient and error-prone, somehow there’s always been an assumption by many that heavy multitaskers can “do it” well. And that doesn’t appear to be true. Practice does help a little. For instance, air traffic controllers can scan a screen and juggle flights better than laypeople. But heavy multitasking doesn’t help boost focus or thinking skills, at least according to this study published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by veteran researcher Clifford Nass and colleagues.

When asked to do simple task-switching in a lab setting, students who were heavy media multitaskers were constantly distracted by irrelevant data, and even did a lousy job of remembering what they were supposed to be doing. Wow. “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” said researcher Eyal Ophir in a Stanford press release. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

Sure, lab experiments aren’t the end of the story. But the study – which I’ve read in the original – clearly shows that heavy multitaskers are deficient in voluntary cognitive control while trying to perform simple task-switching. In other words, they are poor at controlling their focus, and “suckers for irrelevancy,” as Clifford Nass attests. That’s a disturbing finding, whatever cognitive benefits we may later discover in multitasking.

Certainly, attention is so all-encompassing and so crucial to our survival that we’re often not aware, so to speak, of how much information we’re processing in our environment and within what William James called our “stream of consciousness.” We are in many senses born interrupt-driven; to survive we have to be ever-alert to new stimuli in our environment. (And work by Jonathan Schooler indicates that mind-wandering may be good for creativity.) But at the same time, effortful attention, along with working memory, are keys to pursuing our goals. If we can’t sort out the irrelevant in a simple brief lab task, chances are we’re not doing such a great job in the wider, complex world. (And given the plasticity of our brains, it’s not unimaginable that heavy multitasking does shape and even undermine our ability to focus deeply, evaluate and assess the information around us.)

 Drinking from the fire hose of media today may have its benefits, just as videogaming has been found to boost some types of visual attention. But let’s keep the big picture in mind. If we sacrifice cognitive control in the name of high-speed, reactive, distracted living, then the costs of multitasking will be steep indeed.


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