You might have read the news about how your performance suffers while multi-tasking. If you haven’t, here it is in short: your performance suffers and suffers badly.
There have been hundreds of studies since the 1980s demonstrating this.
For example, Harold Pashler demonstrated that when you do two cognitive tasks at once, that their cognitive capacity could drop all the way from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8 year old…*
So, it is no surprise that you do better work when you focus on one thing at a time without distractions.
However, new research points to something far worse…
According to new research from coming out of Stanford University, people who spend long periods of time multi-tasking might lose their ability to pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another.
Even more relevant is that the chosen multi-taskers were “people who regularly deal with several streams of electronic information simultaneously.”
And the irony here is that as you continue to multi-task over time, you lose the ability to multi-task well!
100 students were split into two groups:
Group one consisted of regular media multi-taskers.
Group two consisted of people who did not consider themselves to be regular multi-taskers.
Experiment One: Dealing With Distractions
In the first experiment, the two groups were shown two red rectangles in isolation and then shown two red rectangles surrounded by differing amounts of blue rectangles.
Each configuration was shown twice, and the students had to figure out if the two red rectangles had changed position from the first frame.
The results were that the NON-multi-taskers did just fine (they were able to ignore the surrounding blue rectangles and identify a change in position of the red rectangles). The multi-taskers, on the other hand, did not do as well. They could not ignore the distraction of the surrounding blue rectangles, though they were told to do so.
Experiment Two: Memory Control
The next experiment was a simple memory sequence involving remembering sequences of alphabetical letters. The main task was to see if they could remember if a letter was making a repeat appearance.
Again, the multi-taskers did not do as well as the non-multi-taskers.
Experiment Three: Switching Tasks (true multi-tasking skills!)
In order to test whether multi-taskers were actually good at switching from one task to another, students were shown pictures of numbers and letters at the same time and were told what to focus on.
If they were told to pay attention to letters, they had to say whether the letters were vowels or consonants. When told to concentrate on numbers, they had to identify if the number was odd or even.
[There is a link at the end of this article where you can take an online version of this test]***
Again, the heavy media multi-taskers failed in comparison to the non-multi-taskers on an actual test determining one’s ability to multi-task!
Again, the irony is painful. This is a big cognitive price to pay for the multi-tasking lifestyle.
Cause > Effect?
We do not know for sure whether this is correlation or causation. We would need a baseline before subjects decided to live the multi-tasking lifestyle.
Maybe people with these attributes naturally gravitate toward electronic multi-tasking, while people with greater concentration powers gravitate towards single-tasking. My gut feeling is that there is at least some cause-effect going on, but that is just a hunch.
I am not immune…
As I was writing this article, I definitely checked on other things… I answered over 20 emails, took a couple of unscheduled calls, wrote an advertisement and was fiddling around with some new brain software someone just sent me for to review!
Even worse, I was conscious of it, since I was researching this article. But I am sure that 99% of the time, I would not notice myself giving in to these distractions. It is just a way of life.
If you are like me, you pride yourself on this ability. And if you are like me, you are probably also kidding yourself.
Are you immune?
The New York Times has an online test which replicates experiment three. Take it and let us know your results! Click here.
Now, please excuse me while I go check my email.
*Pashler, H. “Attentional limitations in doing two tasks at the same time.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 1 (1992):44-50
**“Cognitive control in media multitaskers.” By Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106 No. 33, August 25, 2009.