“If You Can Avoid It, Don’t Multitask” --What?

From time to time you see a spate of articles sweep through the mainstream media decrying multitasking and the apparent conclusion from scientific research that multitasking leads to a reduction in overall accomplishment. I’ve seen headlines like “Multitasking is Counterproductive,” “Multitasking Creates Health Problems,” “Multitasking Makes You Stupid,” and “The Thief of Time: Multitasking is Inefficient.” Those headlines make my blood boil and chill at the same time (multitasking)!

These newspaper, television, radio, and Internet flurries are almost entirely either from or about the article, “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching,” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. Someone from the Knowledge Age had to get to the bottom of this. So, I submerged myself in the dense, 34-page original article and found out that, among other things, the research in question d'esn’t relate in any realistic way to either the headlines or to the content of the news articles.

A full citation to Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching this can be found at the end of this column. (There’s another article about brain imaging that I will write about some other time. Together they are cited as “a growing body of scientific evidence.”)

You would think from news articles that anyone who multitasks is totally wasting their time. My take on it is that the media is playing up to peoples’ fears about not being able to keep up. And I remember recent history, when multitasking was often intensely discouraged by bosses and colleagues. (Luckily that’s changed now, check out the image of a very productive recent SCUP staff meeting.)

The first thing I found out, when I did a little research into the source, was that the American Psychological Association (APA) isn’t at all averse to putting a media-friendly, hype-it-up “spin” on things.

The headline on its press release when the article was published says, “Is Multitasking More Efficient? Shifting Mental Gears Costs Time, Especially When Shifting to Less Familiar Tasks.”

The press release subtitle, which more accurately reflects the thrust of the research findings, says “Studying the ‘Inner CEO’ Can Improve Interface Design, Personnel Training, and Diagnosis of Brain Damage.” Nothing about the hyped intro. Here, read the actual scientifically published abstract and try to find anything in it about inefficiency and multitasking:

In 4 experiments, participants alternated between different tasks or performed the same task repeatedly. The tasks for 2 of the experiments required responding to geometric objects in terms of alternative classification rules, and the tasks for the other 2 experiments required solving arithmetic problems in terms of alternative numerical operations. Performance was measured as a function of whether the tasks were familiar or unfamiliar, the rules were simple or complex, and visual cues were present or absent about which tasks should be performed. Task alternation yielded switching-time costs that increased with rule complexity but decreased with task cuing. These factor effects were additive, supporting a model of executive control that has goal-shifting and rule-activation stages for task switching. It appears that rule activation takes more time for switching from familiar to unfamiliar tasks than for switching in the opposite direction.

Now, read these excerpts from the first two paragraphs of the press release:

New scientific studies reveal the hidden costs of multitasking, key findings as technology increasingly tempts people to do more than one thing (and increasingly, more than one complicated thing) at a time.

Now try to find where the press release language reflects the study. Hmm. Well, there’s clearly even less relationship if you read the whole 34-page article, which I have now. Twice. Carefully.

The initial research was aimed at learning more about how the brain controls task shifting and the concomitant application of rules for thinking. And the data was collected in 1992 and 1993, years before the trends that we’ve seen in using IT for multitasking were visible to many researchers--many of whom by their nature likely avoid multitasking when at all possible.

Sure enough, the researchers found that there were some costs in terms of time used by your brain to manage your shift from one task to another. Not exactly a surprise, but not really a finding about multitasking and “efficiency” on the job, either.

A few dozen undergraduates at the University of Michigan were given ten arithmetic problems to solve. When the problems were all one kind--say, all multiplication or all division--it took them about a minute to get the answers. If the problems were mixed--some division and some multiplication--it took them about 15-20 seconds longer.

The abstract reflects those findings, as d'es the paper. The APA press release and the media interviews by the scientists reflect a whole lot more, however. What appears to be professional speculation is not qualified as such and becomes--in articles that people read--statements about the latest scientific research showing that “Multitasking is Counterproductive,” “Multitasking Creates Health Problems,” Multitasking Makes You Stupid,” and “The Thief of Time: Multitasking is Inefficient.”

My bet is that 95 percent (or more) of the journalists who wrote or spoke about this paper and multitasking read and understood that sentence, but not much if anything more. Most probably never even followed the hyperlink to the full article, and if they did, they probably skimmed the front page and went somewhere else as they felt their eyes glazing over.

What’s all this got to with information technology and higher education, and why is it here in IT Trends? Well, at the NLII and EDUCAUSE meetings I’ve attended, and at the Syllabus conferences, too, I’ve noticed and been made to feel at home by the number of people using their laptops and PDAs to multitask in the middle of seminars and presentations.

No one there is telling me to “put your laptop down and pay attention,” or telling me I can’t possibly work well with 1,000 files on my desktop, or that I can’t really be paying attention to my work and getting things done while reading e-mail, browsing the Drudge Report, and simultaneously carrying on three instant messenger conversations.

And I’m guessing that most of the readership of this column is like me--“born” for info tech and what it lets you do! At the NLII conference I attended most recently, a couple of people I met asked me to research the origin of all that bad press for multitasking and write about it. So I have. And I hope you enjoy it and that you find it useful to counter criticism from your Luddite colleagues!

Article Reference
“Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching,” Joshua S. Rubinstein, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Atlantic City, N.J.; David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, Vol. 27, No.4.
The full article:

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