Are multitaskers really worse at multitasking than those who don't multitask? If you read the popular media accounts of the new study out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner, "Cognitive Controi in Media Multitaskers," you would believe this to be the case. Now, go back and read the scientific study itself. The results are far less clear than the headlines. Multitasking may make you worse at taking attentional tests. But, hey! I'm a blogger. I know you multitasking, media-stacking, netsurfing, always-on readers lose attention quickly. Does that make you worse at multitasking--or better?
Before I come back to that question, I'm going to make an analogy. If you are a high school student hoping to ace the SAT's, or a college student hoping to improve last year's score on the LSAT's or MCAT's or GRE's, everyone knows you don't study. What a waste of time that would be! The Kaplan family hasn't made millions on all those prepping books and tests because they don't get results. No, if you want to do well on a certain test, you prep for it by learning how to take that test. You learn its form, its implicit assumptions about how to answer a question, its implicit body of knowledge from which it draws, its pacing, and even how best to guess if you don't have a clue how to answer. Myriad studies have shown these things all improve your test scores. Do these prep methods make you smarter in the field? Not necessarily. They make you better at taking the particular test for which you are studying.
I make this analogy because from all the popular reports on this study, including the quotes by one of the PI's, Clifford Nass, you would believe that people who engage in media multitasking are those least able to do so well at multitasking. Or, as Nass is quoted as saying, "The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking."
Well, when I read the study itself, that conclsion is far from obvious. In the summary, the authors conclude that "heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. . . . 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." That makes me curious because, intuitively, I would think that susceptibility to distraction is precisely what makes one a good multitasker. That is, going back to Linda Stone's paradigm-changing studies of "continuous partial attention," it seems that multitasking is never entirely synchronous or entirely symmetrical. We move in and out of attention constantly, and with a certain fickleness of attention. Even when we think we are attending to only one thing, we are constantly being pulled (as we know from Raichle's work on neuronal brain activity) in different directions.
There is very little way to tell, in a given moment, if our focus is distracted or not, even when all we are supposed to be doing is telling the psychologists if the two red rectangles or the two blue ones have changed. Judging by many of my HASTAC readers, I would guess that you wouldn't keep their attention very long looking at a screen with flashing rectangles. What does that screen tell you about attention in the real world? Or is it like the Kaplan tests, you get better at the test by prepping for the test. In other words, multitasking does not in any way prepare you to ace this experiment. Even if you are Stanford students (like the test subjects) who have gotten into a fine university at least partly because you have mastered the ability to master standardized forms of test-taking.
My skepticism about studies of multitasking arises from experiments in the science of self-distraction. We are in a moment of enormous technological change and, as in all previous such moments, those of us old enough to remember the "before" are distracted by the "after." That means we see distraction everywhere. "Multitasking" is the synonym for our anxieties about change. But 80% of all brain energy is consumed by the brain's ability to distract itself. Sleeping, for example, is a marvelous example (and I don't mean insomnia; I mean sleep itself) of multiple forms of distraction. Try to tell a dream and you know that, but there are more quantified methods too based on rapid eye movements, respiration, perspiration, heart beats, and so forth.
Here's the bottom line: Distraction is not only from media nor is it, as we believe in this moment, always external. Heartburn or heartache is as distracting as the radio in the next room. Or as the beep from the email coming in, or the next tweet, or the IM in the corner of the screen. In fact, heartburn or heartache interfere with attention more so if there aren't a lot of other distractions around us. There is lots we don't know about pain, for example, but we know that distraction can minimize it.
Multitasking studies measures on the tasks we see as multiple. I fervently believe texting while driving puts one at risks for accidents. It scares me to see people texting while driving. But the statistics for accidents after trauma--notice of an illness, a dear john from one's lover, an unemployment notice--are even higher than the statistics for texting. Internal distractions, as Buddhism has known for eons, are more powerful even than those things that, in this technophiliac/technophobic moment, we "count" as distractions and multitasking.
Incidentally, in tracking down the original of this article in the PNAS, I was delighted to use the "chat" feature supplied by the able reference librarians at Perkins Library. (A subject for another post: I tried to find this online but of course PNAS is subscription only. Which means the vast majority of people won't have my privilege of checking the actual study against the popular account.) In any case, I put my research into the able hands of Duke's marvelous full-service reference librarians. (Thank you again!) The whole exchange--from my logging in, trying to find the article myself, then turning to the Ask Ref function, using the chat function, and then actually receiving the pdf in my email inbox--took only 7 and a half minutes. I kept count. In that time, I was watching my twitter account, checked in on Facebook, was listening to MIA (boom boom boom . . . ). (I charted that too.) But I was also looking out the window, finishing a yoghurt, looking out the window again trying to see if the hummingbird was back, looking at the clock (keeping time), flexing my toes (a new pilates exercise), typing, noticing that my coffee cup was empty, thinking about a meeting this afternoon, reminding myself to send the air conditioner repair man a check, and thinking about writing this blog . . . and I am positive I have not listed one-one hundredth of the external and internal distractions in my life. I sort. We all do. All the time. And we sort among a range of sensory, emotional, physical, and media options, most of which we aren't aware of because we sort so effectively.
We have not remotely created the kind of complex tests for multitasking that our era needs. It is interesting to me that there is a significant difference in the performance of those who consider themselves "high" media multitaskers and those who consider themselves "low" multitaskers, but I also wonder what all is embodied by that self-definition. The authors write: "These results suggest that heavy media multitaskers are distracted by the multiple streams of media they are consuming, or, alternatively, that those who infrequently multitask are more effective at volitionally allocating their attention in the face of distractions. . . . It remains possible that future tests of higher-order cognition will uncover benefits, other than cognitive control, of heavy media multitasking, or will uncover skills specifically exhibited by HHHs not involving cognitive control."
Here, here! That just might be the case. Now, my question: why didn't that open-ended, wise, speculative sentence make it into the popular media accounts about how multitasking is bad for you?