People who spend lots of time monitoring multiple sources of information are worse at switching between tasks and are less able to focus exclusively on single sources according to a new study published in the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences.
It’s a well designed, rigorous study of the type that we are sorely missing in the debate over the psychological effects of media which, sadly, often amounts to little more than hot air.
It’s also been picked up by hundreds of news sources, almost all of which miss the subtlety of what it’s actually telling us.
Here are some of the headlines that miss the point: Hi-tech addicts scrambling their brains; Multi-media use muddles the mind; and my favourite Electronic Multitaskers Not Really ‚ÄòInformation Gods‚Äô (damn you Microsoft, fooled again!)
The experiment compared groups of people who frequently monitor multiple media sources compared to those who do it rarely. Big media has picked up on the ‘multi media’ angle and has focused solely on digital technology but the study was much broader than this.
It divided groups into high and low ‘media multitaskers’ but ‘media’ included a whole bunch of sources, including:
print media, television, computer-based video (such as YouTube or online television episodes), music, nonmusic audio, video or computer games, telephone and mobile phone voice calls, instant messaging, SMS (text messaging), email, web surfing, and other computer-based applications (such as word processing).
In other words, listening to music while reading a book counts as ‘media multitasking’, as does chatting on the telephone while watching television, none of which need digital technology. In fact, you could have multitasked five out of the twelve activities (print, TV, music, nonmusic audio, phone calls) in the 1950s.
This is actually one of the study’s major advantages. It makes sense to look at how people monitor multiple sources in the real world rather restrict ourselves to the computer technology, because there is nothing necessarily distinctive about ‘digital media’. A digital radio is not psychologically different to an analogue one in terms of its output.
So the researchers compared the high and low multitaskers on several tasks looking at whether peripheral information affected performance on visual and memory monitoring tasks, and on a task-switching experiment.
High media multitaskers were generally more affected by peripheral information but this is not a bad thing in itself. You could interpret it as them being more distractable, or simply that they have a wider net of attention and are more able to pick up peripheral information. They might be open to noticing more stuff.
But the task-switching experiment was quite striking. Participants were presented with a letter and number combination, like “a6″ or “i7″ and were asked to do one of two tasks: one was to hit the left button if they saw an odd number and the right for an even; the other was to press the left for a vowel the right for a consonant.
They were warned before each letter-number combination appeared what the task was to be, but high multi-taskers responded on average half a second more slowly when the task was switched.
In reaction time terms, half a second is a very long time. Bruce Lee could have made mincemeat of you by then.
Of course, what we can’t tell from this study is whether heavy parallel media monitoring causes these effects, or whether people who are less able to exclusively focus and switch prefer more media concurrently. Maybe they’re actually absorbing more of it in total. We don’t know from this study.
Despite big media going off half-cocked, this is a valuable study because we need to start understanding how information technology affects us in our day-to-day life.
We have precious few of these studies and we need more.