Study shows multi-taskers are fooling themselves

This study may be old news to many of you, but I don’t remember encountering it. From my university’s teaching newsletter:

The findings of the third, laboratory-based, study further illuminate the relationship between the use of devices and the potential for distraction. The researchers in this study set out to test whether undergraduates who are “heavy media multi-taskers” might have an improved ability, relative to peers who are “light media multi-taskers,” to filter out distracting information. The researchers defined “media multi-tasking” or simultaneously engaging with different media—including print, television, computer-based video, music, text messaging, instant messaging, web-surfing, email. Their findings were precisely the opposite of what they had expected to find: heavy media multi-tasking was related to a reduced ability to ignore distractions and focus on pertinent information—even after accounting for potential differences in academic aptitude, personality and performance on standard creativity and memory tasks.

This study suggests that students who frequently switch their attention back and forth—from listening to a lecture or answering questions to activities such as texting or updating social networking sites, for example—may actually be less able to filter out irrelevant distractions from pertinent information—even when they are not texting or social networking.

The first paragraph in the above quote neatly summarizes the study; the second paragraph is extrapolating the very artificial laboratory results to the classroom, which is certainly a reasonable speculation, but not something demonstrated by the study. Nevertheless, reading these results (which I did after following a link in an email which I was checking when I should have been finishing that paper on DNA binding sites I had started reading…) leaves me with a strong urge to improve my own task discipline.

Here’s the study:

Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), 15583–15587.

Chronic media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous, although processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition. A series of experiments addressed whether there are systematic differences in information processing styles between chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. A trait media multitasking index was developed to identify groups of heavy and light media multitaskers. These two groups were then compared along established cognitive control dimensions. Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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