Multitasking is a Trade-Off

I completed my Bachelor’s Degree at Ohio State. Multitasking is an important and frequent topic for this blog (just enter “multitasking” in the search block to find related articles). So when I came across an article with this title in the alumni magazine, I could not resist using this source.1

Multitasking interferes with learning and performance. Studying while watching TV results in less learning. Communicating via instant messaging leads to a 50% drop in the performance of a simultaneous visual task. Communicating via voice phone leads to a 30% drop in the same task. Consequently, you should never engage in these tasks while driving. It is also true that hands free laws do not solve the problem.

A group of researchers at Ohio State recruited 32 college students who reported on their activities three times a day for four weeks. These students tracked their use of media (computer, radio, print, and television) as well as their use of social networking and other activities. For each activity and combination of activities the students listed their motivations using a list of potential needs including social, fun/entertainment, study/work, and habits/background noise. They reported on the strength of each need and whether it was met. The results indicated that if the cognitive need that was the reason for the multitasking in the first place, it was poorly met. The obvious reason is the distraction effect. In addition to the other task, the act of switching between tasks makes attentional demands. The students indicate that multitasking was very good at meeting their emotional needs (fun/entertainment/relaxation) even though they were not seeking to satisfy these needs.

Probably the most common reason that they multitask is that they are busy and time constraints demand it. Although that might be true, another reason is that it is enjoyable. Or, at least, it allows the pursuit of enjoyable activities. Students, indeed everyone, should be aware of this. If something is important, we probably should not multitask. However, if we do, we should be aware of the loss in efficiency and devote more time to the primary task. Students might not realize this and multitask because it is more enjoyable. This probably results in a lower grade unless the student has compensated for the less efficient learning.

I multitask. I frequently multitask by reading when I’m watching a sporting event. I know that if something important happens, they will replay it. I might even read while I’m watching the news or similar programs where a variety of topics are being covered, and I am only interested in some of them. But if what I am reading is important, the television is off

The choice between pleasure/enjoyment and what is good for us is a common one. Diet is another one. All we can do is make reasonable trade-offs.

1Mullin, M. (2012). Multitasking is a trade-off. Ohio State Alumni Magazine, September-October, p.24.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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