Multitaskers Think They're Awesome, When In Fact They Think Poorly And Their IQs Are Even Dropping

Raj Shaw (L) sits in a texting and driving simulator as part of the It Can Wait campaign in New York. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The screen-saturated, multitasking modern world is hindering our quality of engagement, retention and critical thinking.

And, according to a large body of research, we’ve convinced ourselves we can tackle many things at once.

But it is more likely to mean that we can’t do any one thing well, let alone excel at many.

Research in Australia last year suggested one in three Australians browse the internet while watching television. With the country being a world leader in smartphone penetration, that number is likely to have increased since the research was carried out last year.

Experts say multitasking leads to fuzzy brain work, including an inability to keep key facts in our heads and poor performance when digging through mounds of information to find what’s relevant.

“As we type emails while conversing on the phone, second-screen while watching TV and text while driving, further evidence is emerging to suggest that multitasking is not doing us any favours,” says the second edition of Ford’s annual publication on micro trends, Looking Further with Ford.

“This issue is as much economic as it is societal — more and more, companies are recognising that mindfulness, rather than multitasking, can yield better productivity, and with it, higher profits.”

The trends report gives a series of facts illustrating the point:

  • Studies show that while working, being distracted by incoming calls or email lowers a person’s IQ by 10 points.
  • Only 2% of people are effective at multitasking. For the remaining 98%, it can do more harm than good.
  • According to a Stanford study, the more you multitask, the less you’re able to learn, concentrate or be nice.
  • 60% of US pedestrians text, email, talk on the phone or listen to music while walking.
  • In an attempt to shut out the distractions of the Internet, universities are increasingly asking students to close their laptops during lectures.
  • 40% of all American teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put people in danger.
  • 20% of Americans say they have used their cell phone in a place of worship
  • 11% say they have used a cell phone while in the shower

The proliferation of multitasking in the multi-screen world is, most worryingly, potentially damaging to cognitive function. Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor who pioneered research into how humans interact with technology, said in an interview with PBS’s Frontline, an American public affairs television program:

“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 organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed. We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.”

Previous research with involvement from Australian academics developed a test which highlights just how bad people are at doing simultaneous tasks. David Strayer, from the University of Utah, coined the term “supertaskers” for the 2% of the population who really can process multiple streams of information at the same time – and not only do they do it well, but their performance actually improves. You can take the test here.

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