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Portrait of a Multitasking Mind

What happens when you try to do three things at once?



Paul Kline

Are you a media multitasker? We know you're reading a blog, but what else are you doing right now? Take a quick inventory: Are you also listening to music? Monitoring the progress of a sports game on TV? Emailing your co-worker? Texting your friend? On hold with tech support? If your inventory has revealed a multitasking lifestyle, you are not alone. Media multitasking is increasingly common, to the extent that some have dubbed today’s teens "Generation M."

People often think of the ability to multitask as a positive attribute, to the degree that they will proudly tout their ability to multitask. Likewise it’s not uncommon to see job advertisements that place “ability to multitask” at the top of their list of required abilities. Technologies such as smartphones cater to this idea that we can (and should) maximize our efficiency by getting things done in parallel with each other. Why aren’t you paying your bills and checking traffic while you’re driving and talking on the phone with your mother? However, new research by EyalOphir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner at Stanford University suggests that people who multitask suffer from a problem: weaker self-control ability.

The researchers asked hundreds of college students fill out a survey on their use of 12 different types of media. Students reported not only the number of hours per week that they used each type of media, but also rated how often they used each type of media simultaneously with each other type of media. The researchers created a score for each person that reflected how much their lifestyle incorporated media-multitasking.

They then recruited people who had scores that were extremely high or low and asked them perform a series of tests designed to measure the ability to control one's attention, one's responses, and the contents of one's memory. They found that the high- and low- media-multitasking groups were equally able to control their responses, but that the heavy media-multitasking group had difficulties, compared to the low media-multitasking group, when asked to ignore information that was in the environment or in their recent memory. They also had greater trouble relative to their counterparts when asked to switch rapidly between two different tasks. This last finding was surprising, because psychologists know that multitasking involves switching rapidly between tasks rather than actually performing multiple tasks simultaneously.

It seems that chronic media-multitaskers are more susceptible to distractions. In contrast, people who do not usually engage in media-multitasking showed a greater ability to focus on important information. According to the researchers, this reflects two fundamentally different strategies of information processing. Those who engage in media-multitasking more frequently are "breadth-biased," preferring to explore any available information rather than restrict themselves. AsLin Lin at the University of North Texas puts it in a review of the article, they develop a habit of treating all information equally. On the other extreme are those who avoid breadth in favor of information that is relevant to an immediate goal.

So what does this mean for you, reading this blog while checking your stocks and playing solitaire? Are you in trouble? Should you curb your media congestion? Not necessarily. Breadth-bias may still serve a purpose in our media-heavy society. While the researchers focused on a type of control known as "top-down" attention, meaning that control is initiated by higher-level mental processes such as cognition in service of a specific goal, they suggest that heavy media-multitaskers might be better at "bottom-up" attention. In this type of control, cues from the external world drive your attention through lower-level mental processes such as perception and habit. In our fast-paced and technologically advancing society, it may be that having a single goal on which to focus our efforts is a luxury. We may often be better served by a control strategy that is cued by the demands of our surroundings. Look around yourself - do you see notes and to-do lists? Piles of objects meant to remind you about tasks and goals? These sorts of reminders are a great way to take advantage of bottom-up attentional control, and this type of control might in fact be more influential in our lives than we realize.

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.

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