Is multitasking a myth? (Dumb things, part 3)


“[I]t is not too late to recognize the craziness that technology can promote and discover new ways to stay sane in a world that encourages – and even promotes – insanity.” —Larry D. RoseniDisorder, p.6

“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” –Albert Einstein


As I noted in my previous comments on the Pew/Elon survey, the votes on Millennial “rewiring” were split (the survey Web page and report download are here). While plenty of participants felt like me (negative), plenty of others took opposing views. If you read through the survey comments, you’ll find allusions to research proving that multitasking is going to screw up young minds. You’ll also find allusions to research proving that multitasking is not going to screw up young minds.

My interest in this subject began as anything but research-oriented. It was a gut reaction to students in class being mentally absent for 3 hours while they texted their hearts out. And more generally to the countless dweebs who’ve taken over our public spaces, crashing into people, holding up lines and ignoring every shade of politesse because they might get a text message. Especially the ones people get while driving off a cliff.

While my classroom problem is in check for now, texting under the desk appears to be wildly out of control in educational institutions. This trend has made me curious about why multitasking has become so rampant – and whether there’s any empirical evidence to round out the raw emotional reactions. My claims about research among the survey comments were a little vague: “[G]ood research has shown that even especially bright kids are less productive when multitasking, a finding resisted by plenty of grown-ups as well” (survey report, p.28).

Elvis was here

Don’t take my negativity too much to heart: I also see the wisdom in more optimistic comments. Take Jessica Clark, a senior fellow for two communications technology research centers, who reminds us we’ve been here before – referring to the nefarious influences on teens that keep parents up at night:

“Every new generation finds creative and groundbreaking ways to use the new technologies to explore and illuminate human truths and to make dumb, sexist, horrifying schlock. Multitasking young adults and teens will be fine; they’ll be better at certain types of tasks and worse at others. Their handwriting will be horrendous. Their thumbs will ache. Life will go on” (survey report, p.17).

What about those claims in the survey that empirical research supports the optimistic view? Communications consultant Stowe Boyd for one says new studies may show multitasking is possible. “There is recent evidence (published by researchers Jason Watson and David Strayer) that suggests that some people are natural ‘supertaskers’ capable of performing two difficult tasks at once, without loss of ability on the individual tasks,” he wrote. “This explodes the conventional wisdom that ‘no one can really multitask,’ and by extension the premise that we shouldn’t even try” (survey report, p.27). Boyd also agrees with others like Clark above on the what-me-worry perspective:

“[C]ultural criticism seems to want to sequester certain questionable activities – like video gaming, social networking, multitasking, and others – into a no-man’s-land where the plasticity of the human mind is negative. None of these critics wring their hands about the dangerous impacts of learning to read, or the intellectual damage of learning a foreign language. But once kids get on a skateboard, or start instant messaging, it’s the fall of Western civilization.”

OK, I get the fall-of-Western-civilization meme (just as I  remember my parents’ widely shared moral panic at their first sighting of Elvis Presley on TV). On the other hand, it turns out the research Boyd cites from Watson and Strayer proves something like the opposite of what he’s out to convey. Here’s some backstory.



Live fast, stay young

In February 2010, PBS aired a Frontline documentary called “Digital Nation: Life on the virtual frontier.” Their website contains a wealth of background information about multitasking on the page devoted to “Living faster: daily life in the age of nonstop connection.” The material includes interviews with some noted experts, including MIT’s Sherry Turkle and Standford’s Clifford Nass. I mentioned Turkle in my previous post in connection with her NY Times piece on “The Flight from Conversation.” She takes a different tack in her PBS interview (video and transcript here):

“I teach the most brilliant students in the world. But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes. There really are important things you cannot think about unless it’s still and you’re only thinking about one thing at a time.”

In his interview, Stanford’s Clifford Nass takes an even harder line. Nass, whose main appointment is in Communication, has done pioneering experimental work on multitasking, especially in connection with media consumption:

“The big point [in our research] is, you walk around the world, and you see people multitasking, working on tasks while watching TV, while talking with people. If they’re at the computer, they’re playing games and they’re reading e-mail and they’re on Facebook, etc. Yet classic psychology says that’s impossible; no one can do that. So we’re confronted with a mystery. Here are all these people doing things that psychology says is impossible. And we want to ask the question, how do they do it? Do they have some secret ingredient, some special ability that psychologists had no idea about?”

Nass and his colleagues addressed these questions by putting a group of students in their lab and running cognitive tests on them. The researchers were “absolutely shocked” by the outcome – “multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” They also found multitasking has a perverse effect: those who think they’re really good at it actually test out as terrible at it. In the interview, Nass is downright alarmist about the implications:

“As a professor and as a teacher, we think a lot about how do you teach kids who can’t pay attention or are distracted by irrelevancy or don’t keep their memory neatly organized? It’s a scary, scary thought.”

Have a look at this 2-minute clip (not from PBS), in which Nass explains very convincingly the right and wrong ways to concentrate on a task like writing…




More negative data 

I mentioned above that one of the Pew/Elon survey participants had misconstrued the findings of research carried out by Jason Watson and David Strayer. That’s the conclusion I draw from looking at an unpublished study these two University of Utah psychologists posted online: “Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking” (official authorship is David Sanbonmatsu, David Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward, and Jason Watson). Their conclusions are startling to say the least. Here’s most of the abstract:

“Participants completed measures of multi-tasking activity, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. In addition, they performed the OSPAN task [Operation Span Task, a test of working memory] in order to assess their executive control and actual multi-tasking ability. The findings indicate that the persons who are most capable of multi-tasking effectively are not the persons who are most likely to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. To the contrary, multi-tasking activity as measured by the MMI [Media Multitasking Index] and self-reported cell phone usage while driving were negatively correlated with actual multi-tasking ability. Multi-tasking was significantly correlated with participants’ perceived ability to multi-task ability which was found to be significantly inflated. Participants with a strong approach orientation and a weak avoidance orientation – high levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking – reported greater multi-tasking behavior. […]” (p.2, my emphasis).

I’m particularly interested in the fact this research involved undergraduates – 310 to be exact (176 female and 134 male) ranging in age from 18 to 44, average age 22 (p.10). And in the fact that it confirms my bias from the classroom: that students who seem least able to stay off their mobile devices also seem (on the basis of their academic performance) to be the least able to spare time and attention away from course activities. One of the key instruments used in this research – the MMI – was devised and reported on in a paper co-authored by Clifford Nass and his Stanford colleagues Eyal Ophir and Anthony D. Wagner. I point this out for a couple of reasons.

First, absent an actual lit review, these two studies indicate there’s at least some experimental support from reputable sources for what we might call the contrarian perspective on multitasking – i.e. just because huge numbers of bright, motivated people engage in multitasking doesn’t mean they’re all good at it or getting more done (the 2009 study by Nass and Co was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: I’ve uploaded it here).

Second, the Utah study has this to say about the earlier work at Stanford:  “The notion that people multi-task because they are good at it is challenged by the important work of Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009) who examined the cognitive abilities of chronic multi-taskers” (p.4). The conclusions of the two studies are indeed quite similar. Here’s what the Stanford abstract concludes in part:

“Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set […].”

Do we have a crisis in post-secondary education?

One other issue jumps out of the Stanford study: what if anything should social and institutional authorities do about multitasking? In entertaining the possible findings from their testing, the authors suggest that whatever the direction of causality as between chronic behaviors and personality leanings, the world may be ready for some prescriptive measures:

“[I]f heavy media multitasking behavior is associated with deficits in cognitive control, such a finding would offer important prescriptive guidance irrespective of the direction of causality. If chronic media multitasking is the cause, then a change in multitasking behavior might be warranted. Conversely, if chronic media multitasking behavior is more frequently engaged in by individuals least able to cope with multiple input streams, then behavior change may confer particular benefits to these individuals as they would have to deal with fewer distractors.”

I’m not going to try to guess what the authors have in mind here. But it sure sounds to me like the provosts and academic vice-presidents who make policy in North American universities should be paying attention to this stuff.

I took a quick look at one journal aimed at Canada’s university community, University Affairs, which had a recent blog reference to a US survey of 269 students designed to gather their views about texting in the classroom: “The Use and Abuse of Cell Phones and Text Messaging in the Classroom: A Survey of College Students,” by Tindell and Bohlander. I don’t know whether this study purports to be representative of a larger undergraduate population. But it kicked up some controversy on this UA blog page, which reports the following survey findings:

“Nearly all students (99%) reported having a cellphone and 95% reported that they brought their phones to class every day; 92% admitted that they had sent or received a text message during class and 30% reported that they sent and received messages in class every day. As well, 97% said they had seen texting being done by other students in the classroom.”

After skimming through some further online comments, I see no signs of any happy resolution – and by “happy” I mean a hard look by universities at why so many of their students see digital devices in the classroom as an entitlement; and why university authorities seem to be ignoring the “scary” findings of respected researchers like Clifford Nass concerning the effects of their use on learning. I’m also fascinated to read the arguments in favor of promoting laptops and similar devices as indispensable learning tools.

Baloney. I teach in a computer lab and I would love to see someone demonstrate exactly what learning problems are being solved (apart from learning about computers) by insisting that students must be allowed to take notes on their laptops and tablets.

To be continued…