Posted by: John McIntyre | August 27, 2009

Media multitaskers…

may sound like the sort of employee hiring managers salivate over, but a new study suggests that sentiment could be misplaced.

The study by Stanford University researchers found media multitaskers may handle lots of items on their plate from email, instant messages, online video, Web sites, etc. – but they don’t do so very effectively, according to a news release. People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information often do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who focus on one thing at a time.

The news release said Communications Professor Clifford Nass  and colleagues Eval Ophir and Anthony Wagner had set out to determine why media multitaskers seemed to be able to handle the multiple information pipelines.

Suckers for irrelevancy

The researchers put about 100 students through a series of three tests and found many of the heavy media multitaskers simply aren’t doing much.   “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Ophir, the study’s lead author. Added Nass: “They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.” 

In each of their tests, the researchers split their subjects into two groups: those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking and those who don’t.

In one experiment, the groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame.

They were told to ignore the blue rectangles, and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that. But the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images.

Organizing and Storage

The researchers then moved on to testing their storage and organizing abilities, thinking the multitaskers just had better memories, the news release said.

The second test proved that theory wrong too. After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a poor job at remembering when a letter was making a repeat appearance.

“The low multitaskers did great,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”

Finally, the researchers wondered whether the media multitaskers were able to switch subjects more adeptly than others. The answer is no.The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

The researchers are convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could.

“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology, in the news release. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

Video report here.


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