Multi-tasking could be the catchword of the modern age. But it could also land some in serious problems. Multi-tasking students tend to perform poorly, it has been found.
In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, Clifford Nass, a Stanford University cognitive scientist and Stanford psychologists Anthony Wagner and Eyal Ophir surveyed 262 students on their media consumption habits. The 19 students who multitasked the most and 22 who multitasked least then took two computer-based tests, each completed while concentrating only on the task at hand.
In every test, students who spent less time simultaneously reading e-mail, surfing the web, talking on the phone and watching TV performed best.
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, the authors said in their paper.
But whether people with a predisposition to multitask happen to be mentally disorganized, or if multitasking feeds the condition, Nass says it's difficult to say and that more research would be needed to answer the question.
Wagner next plans to use brain imaging to study the neurology of multitasking, while Ness wants to look at the development of multitasking habits in children.
"The causality question is enormous here," he said. "There's a lot of social pressure to multitask. You're getting tweets, e-mails, IMs from multiple people at once, and the web offers unbelievable opportunities for text and video. It may be thrust upon you."
Other studies show that college students who routinely juggle many flows of information, bouncing from e-mail to web text to video to chat to phone calls, fared significantly worse than their low-multitasking peers.
Also children do worse on homework while watching television and office workers are more productive when not checking email every five minutes, Brandon Keim writes on the Wired.