At Last, Good News For Multitaskers

Psychologists have not had anything nice to say about multitasking. Trying to do two things at once degrades performance in virtually all circumstances. The exception seems to be listening to music while performing other tasks, but that seems to be true only for some people, some of the time. But now, new research shows multitaskers may have some real world advantages.

Image remixed from aldegonde(Shutterstock)

Given that multitasking -- especially media multitasking -- is becoming more prevalent, especially among younger people, its pattern of performance is especially troubling.

But there's no evidence that doing a lot of media multitasking makes you better at it. In one study, researchers found that university students who reported more habitual multitasking were actually less skillful in standard laboratory tasks that require shifting or switching attention.

Why would they be worse? One possibility is that they are biased to spread attention broadly. That's a poor strategy when you're confronted with two tasks that have different or even conflicting requirements. But that bias would make you more likely to multitask, even if it's not very effective.

Whether multitasking creates that bias or whether that bias exists for other reasons and prompts people to multitask is not known.

Either way, if heavy multitaskers have a bias to spread attention broadly, that bias should be helpful in tasks where two different streams of information are mutually supportive.

A new study [PDF] tests that prediction.

The researchers used the pip and pop task [PDF]. Subjects view a display like this one:

The subject's task is to find, as quickly as possible, the single horizontal or vertical line amidst the oblique lines, and to press a button identifying it as horizontal or vertical.

All of the lines alternate colours (red and green) but do so asynchronously. The interesting feature of this task is that every time the target changes colour, there is an auditory signal -- the pip. The pip doesn't tell you where the target is, the colour, or whether it's horizontal or vertical. It just corresponds to the colour change of the target.

Subjects are not told that the pips have anything to do with the visual search task, nor that they should pay attention to the pips.

But people who integrate the visual information with the auditory report that the target seems to pop out of the display. They feel like they don't need to laboriously search, they just see it.

The researchers compared subjects speed and accuracy in finding the target when the auditory signal was present and found that accuracy (but not speed) correlated with subjects' self-reported frequency of multitasking, as shown below. Not a huge effect, but it's reliable.

Most laboratory tests of multitasking use tasks that are uncorrelated, so spreading attention among them hurts performance. In this case, the information provided among visual and auditory streams is mutually reinforcing, so spreading attention helps.

Does this have any bearing on the types of tasks people do outside of the lab?

Information in two different tasks is presumably uncorrelated. When two different streams of information are mutually reinforcing it's by design -- the audio and visual portions of a movie, for example. In such cases it's so well synchronised that people make few errors.

One way that multitaskers might have an advantage in real-world tasks is in the detection of unexpected signals. For example, if you're biased to monitor sounds even as you're writing a document, you might be more likely to perceive an auditory signal that an email has arrived in a noisy office environment. Or even to perceive a police siren or lights while driving. Such predictions have not, to my knowledge, been tested.

Daniel Willingham is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. He writes the "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" column for American Educator magazine, and is an Associate Editor of Mind, Brain, and Education. He is also the author of Why Don't Students Like School? and When Can You Trust the Experts?. His writing on education has been translated into 10 languages.

At last, a spot of good news for multitaskers [Daniel Willingham]

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    I haven't read the paper yet and it's unclear whether it's even been accepted, but the results shown on this page look rather sketchy. Take out the two cases in the upper right corner of the scatterplot and that weak correlation gets much weaker.

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