According to the Dual Mechanisms account of control, proposed in 2007 byTodd S. Braver of Washington University St. Louis, Jeremy R. Gray of Yale University, and Gregory C. Burgess of the University of Colorado at Boulder, this sort of breadth-biased, bottom-up control (which they term "reactive") is particularly good in situations where the environment changes a lot and when the information relevant to a goal isn't all that reliable. For example, if you are trying to decide whether to carry an umbrella on your walk to dinner, your experience upon stepping outside for a moment might lead to a better decision than any plan you made based on the morning's weather report. Braver and colleagues also suggest that relying on reactive control helps us develop habits more easily, which help us respond to common situations with greater speed and less effort than top-down control (which they term "proactive").
The distractibility seen in heavy media-multitaskers could also reflect a basic attraction for novelty or information. Or it could simply reflect the fact that focusing is hard. One interesting but unanswered question noted by the scientists is whether multitasking causes, or is caused by, the weaknesses in cognitive control that were observed in the heavy multitaskers. Does media-multitasking make people more distractible, or are people who are more easily distracted more likely to become media-multitaskers?
The researchers point out that cutting back on media-multitasking could reduce distractibility in the real-world regardless of the causal direction by addressing either the symptom or the cause. If you are a distractible person who uses multiple media at once, take advantage of your reactive control: try organizing your environment so that your distractions lead you in productive directions (project-piles, reminder notes) rather than toward irrelevant (albeit fun or interesting) information. If, however, you are a media-multitasker who thinks that you’re becoming a more distractible person, then maybe it’s just time to turn off the gadgets for a while.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section.