Thursday, April 21, 2011

Failures of Multitasking

I frequently vent about multitasking, so I'm surprised that I have only one post that reveals that frustration.  There's no time like the present to correct an error.  Kevin Drum of Mother Jones contends that multitasking ruins one's brain.

Drum begins by quoting an email sent by a "professor friend" of his who begins by making a complaint that I share: "Fully half of my 60 person general physics class this semester sits in the back of the room on either phone or laptop. They're not taking notes. The good ones are working on assignments for other classes (as if being present in mine causes the information to enter their pores). The bad are giggling at Facebook comments."  I teach in a high school that attempts to ban cell phones in the classroom, but students think they should be allowed to do homework for other classes in my class.  I guess I should be flattered that think that I have the omnipotence to force them to learn by just being in my presence.

Drum then quotes a Frontline interview of Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass.
What did you expect when you started these experiments? 

Each of the three researchers on this project thought that ... high multitaskers [would be] great at something, although each of us bet on a different thing. 

I bet on filtering. I thought, those guys are going to be experts at getting rid of irrelevancy. My second colleague, Eyal Ophir, thought it was going to be the ability to switch from one task to another. And the third of us looked at a third task that we're not running today, which has to do with keeping memory neatly organized. So we each had our own bets, but we all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something. 

And what did you find out? 

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they're terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they're terrible at switching from one task to another.
 Let's review; Research says that "multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking."  Surely, multitaskers must be able to discover that fact.  Alas, Nass reports,
One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they're great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more. We worry about it, because as people become more and more multitaskers, as more and more people -- not just young kids, which we're seeing a great deal of, but even in the workplace, people being forced to multitask, we worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.
Nass goes on to show what gets lost as people lose the ablility to think well.
Some things that we know get lost are, first of all, anytime you switch from one task to another, there's something called the "task switch cost," which basically, imagine, is I've got to turn off this part of the brain and turn on this part of the brain. And it's not free; it takes time. So one thing that you lose is time.

A second thing you lose is when you're looking at unrelated things, our brains are built to relate things, so we have to work very, very hard when we go from one thing to another, going: "No, not the same! Not the same! Stop it! Stop it!" It's why people who aren't multitaskers, like me, often experience when we're typing and someone walks up and starts talking with you -- you've probably had this -- you start typing their words and go, "Ah, what happened?" And that's because your brain loves to mix. So we're spending a lot of time trying to beat down this combining brain we have. ...

At the end of the day, it seems like it's affecting things like ability to remember long term, ability to handle analytic reasoning, ability to switch properly, etc., if this stuff is, again, ... trained rather than inborn. If it's inborn, what we're losing is the ability to do a lot of things that we're doing. We're doing things much, much poorer and less efficiently in time. So it's actually costing us time.

One of the biggest delusions we hear from students is, "I do five things at once because I don't have time to do them one at a time." And that turns out to be false. That is to say, they would actually be quicker if they did one thing, then the next thing, then the next. It may not be as fun, but they'd be more efficient.
Multitasking costs more than time, long term memory, and efficiency.  Nass concludes with a reminder of what Americans used to find important and have now lost.  "One of the biggest points here I think is, when I grew up, the greatest gift you could give someone was attention, and the best way to insult someone was to ignore them. ... The greatest gift was attention. Well, if we're in a society where the notion of attention as important is breaking apart, what now is the relationship glue between us?"

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