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August 16, 2022

Does practice make perfect? Not for those who multitask

By Julia Zhang | September 23, 2009

Ever find yourself texting a friend, surfing the internet and studying for that calculus exam all at once?

Constantly bombarded by music, photos and videos in an age of rapid technological advancement, many of us probably consider ourselves expert multitaskers, able to get several things done at once and increase our productivity three-fold.

One new study disagrees. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this research concludes that those who engage in more "media multitasking" are often those least suited to actually do it.

A group of investigators at Stanford University initially ran tests to pinpoint the advantages that "chronic media multitaskers" possess. Hypotheses included superior memories, greater ability to organize information and more selective concentration. The answer they found? None of the above.

"The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking," Clifford Nass, one of the researchers, said in a press interview.

In the tests, 100 students were split into two groups, one that media multitasked on a regular basis and one that did not. The first experiment tested the ability to ignore irrelevant information and involved a screen with two red rectangles and a number of blue rectangles. The images would disappear and reappear with one of the red rectangles rotated. Participants had to identity the rotated rectangle.

Next, students were shown one letter at a time and instructed to press a button when the letter in front of them was one that had appeared earlier. This experiment examined memory organization.

The third test focused on the ability to switch between tasks. The word "letter" or "number" was displayed on a screen before a letter-number pair like A1. Based on that word, students had to either determine if the letter was a consonant or vowel or determine if the number was odd or even. The process was repeated with switches between "letter" and "number" tasks.

In all three tests, infrequent multitaskers performed better and at a more consistent level over time. On the other hand, the high multitaskers' quality of performance was lower from the start and even decreased further as time passed.

"The irony here is that when you ask the low multitaskers, they all think they're much worse at multitasking and the high multitaskers think they're gifted at it," Nass said.

But which came first? Is it that multitasking leads to poor concentration and memory, or are people with those characteristics more prone to multitask?

"I think the critical point from the multitasking literature is that there are serious costs for anyone engaged in multitasking, so the finding that frequent multitaskers are worse than infrequent multitaskers is really a second order effect," Howard Egeth, chair of the Department of Psychology at Hopkins, said.

"In this connection, one of the most dangerous misconceptions that lots of people seem to share these days is that it is safe to drive and use a cell phone (or even text) while driving. This is an extremely bad idea; using a cell phone has about the same deleterious effect on driving as drinking four bottles of beer," Egeth said.

So perhaps this is a sign to go against the trend and focus on only one task at a time, whether it is driving or studying. At the very least, we all ought to reexamine our confidence in our own multitasking skills. They're definitely not at the level you think they are.

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