The Dangers of MultiTasking

A common notion is that young people who have grown up with technology have effectively rewired their brains for multitasking and are proficient at multitasking. This common notion is wrong according to research.1 A group of psychologists at UCLA led by Karin Foerde conducted an experiment to determine whether multitasking impairs learning. They trained 14 participants to perform a single task, predicting the weather based on certain cues. Their brains were scanned while they did this. Their brains were also scanned while they did this task and had a secondary task added to it, keeping count of the number of high pitched auditory tones in a series of auditory tones.

The participants were able to perform both tasks, but they paid a cognitive cost when they performed both tasks. When they performed the weather task alone they used a region of the brain that enables us to apply knowledge gained to other situations when needed (System 2 processing). However, when they performed both tasks at once, they activated a part of their brain linked with habit learning (System 1 processing), The psychologist William James knew this more than one hundred years ago when he wrote that “we can’t easily do more than one thing at once, “unless the processes are very habitual.”2 So if anything surprising or unusual is encountered, it is likely to be missed.

Subsequently, a group of researchers at Stanford classified a group of participants as whether heavy or light multitaskers. They administered a series of cognitive tests, each designed to measure some aspect of distractibility to see which group handled the load better. They were surprised to find that compared to light multitaskers, the heavy multitaskers did a worse job filtering out irrelevant distractions, had a harder time ignoring irrelevant memories, and took a longer time switch from one task to another. Now both groups performed the same on tasks when there were no distractions. But it appears that the heavy multitaskers “may be sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information.3

The problem is that people typically are not aware of this loss in performance. Other researchers4 found that people who were high in real-world multitasking not only had lower working-memory capacity, but also were more impulsive and sensation-seeking. Worse yet, they rated their own ability to multitask as higher than average. So their perceived ability and actual ability to multitask were inversely related. It appears that overconfidence rather than skill drives this proliferation of multitasking. The fear is that academic activity will receive less focused time, resulting in cursory processing of information and shoddy outcomes.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Rewired: Cognition in the Digital Age. Observer, 25,2, 16-20. A Publication of the Association for Psychological Science.

2James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psycholog. NY: Holt.

3. Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, E.D., Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15583-15587.

4Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “The Dangers of MultiTasking”

  1. Multi-tasking According to Mai Toast « The Kreen of the Crop Says:

    […] The Dangers of MultiTasking (healthymemory.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Multitasking and Scripture « joshchalmers Says:

    […] The Dangers of MultiTasking (healthymemory.wordpress.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted on Thursday, March 8th, 2012 at 5:00 am and tagged with Computer multitasking, Erik Qualman, Social media and posted in Infographics, Scripture, Technology and Faith. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « Digital Poverty and Digital Utopia […]

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