A recent article in the PNAS was quoted in quite a number of media outlets (Hindustan Times gave the Masters student responsible a PhD as well as professorship). From the article, Cognitive control in media multitaskers, by (the formidable team of) Eyal Ophir (get a Web page!), Cliff Nass and Anthony Wagner:
Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.
Heavy multimedia multitaskers (HMMs) are identified by a survey about media use, and compared to low multimedia multitaskers (one standard deviation over vs. under the mean of the index). The paper compared HMMs (not sure they are aware of the other meaning of the term) and LMMs on a number of tasks, finding that:
individuals who frequently use multiple media approach fundamental information processing activities differently than do those who consume multiple media streams much less frequently: their breadth-biased media consumption behavior is indeed mirrored by breadth-biased cognitive control.
In other words, those who multitask are not effective multitaskers – it’s the opposite. Of course, there are still outstanding questions:
- Causality: what is the direction of influence? Do HMMs (I still find it hard to use this acronym) tend to breadth-biased consumption of media because of their distraction?
- Index validation: how robust is the survey and metric created to capture the “media multitasking” index? Do survey participants’ self-reports actually attest to their real behavior, and does the survey really capture “multitasking” or something else? The authors note that Media multitasking as measured was correlated with total hours of media use — maybe that’s what was measured?
- What other factors are in play? As the participants were all Stanford students, I do not expect major age, economic or education gaps; the also authors tested for differences in a number of dimensions (SAT scores, performance on a creativity task, ratings on extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness and others) and found no significant differences between HMMs (grrrr, acronym!) and LMMs. Does this cover it or is there any other factor that will help explain the differences?
In any case, interesting study — I am looking forward to the follow up work. And now, off to another media!