Stop Multitasking And Pay Attention!

Pay very close attention to this post. Ignore the seven other open tabs in your browser, the IM window that just lit up, and the television in the background. Multitasking is all the rage, but it might be bad for you.

Researchers at Stanford University ran self-described multitaskers through a series of tests, comparing their performance against that of a control group. The multitaskers were worse at everything, Stanford’s Adam Gorlick reports:

In one experiment, the groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame.

They were told to ignore the blue rectangles, and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that. But the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images. Their performance was horrible.

Because the high multitaskers showed they couldn’t ignore things, the researchers figured they were better at storing and organising information. Maybe they had better memories.

The second test proved that theory wrong. After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a lousy job at remembering when a letter was making a repeat appearance.

If the heavy multitaskers couldn’t filter out irrelevant information or organise their memories, perhaps they excelled at switching from one thing to another faster and better than anyone else.

Wrong again, the study found.

The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants.

As the researchers acknowledge, this isn’t really a case against multitasking, but rather against multitaskers; it may be that people who are bad at these tasks to begin with also have a tendency to do many things at once. Still, this isn’t encouraging news for the Twitter age.

On the other hand, paying too close attention to one thing at a time can be dangerous:

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