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Multitaskers: suckers for irrelevancy, easily distracted

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A recent study implies it's not cool to brag about your skills as a multitasker.

This will comes as bad news to those of us who regularly consume multiple simultaneous media streams - texting while watching television, hopping between websites and IM, or coding while listening to Jay-Z.

You know who you are.

Specifically, the study concluded that media multitaskers have lower attention, memory, and task-switching abilities than folks who are more accustomed to doing one thing at a time.

As explained in the Stanford Report, the researchers who conducted the study gathered a group of about 100 students and divided them into two groups: those who regularly multitask among media and those who don't.

The researchers then gave each of the groups a battery of tests that compared them "along established cognitive control dimensions," in the words of the abstract of the study, published by the US National Academy of Sciences and called Cognitive control in media multitaskers.

According to researcher Clifford Nass, the testing showed that heavy multitaskers are "suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them."

Not only were the multitaskers easily distracted, they also had poorer memories than the one-thing-at-a-timers. In memory testing, said the study's lead author, Eyal Ophir: "The low multitaskers did great. The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along."

When the high multitaskers were given task-switching tests: "They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," Ophir said. "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

As explained by co-author Anthony Wagner, high-multitaskers have poor information filters. "When they're in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory," he said, "they're not able to filter out what's not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information."

There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg question that the researchers didn't resolve through their testing: namely, as the Stanford Report put it: "Whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once."

The authors of the study recognize that more research needs to be done to resolve that conundrum. But they're convinced that their study proves that heavy multitasking correlates quite directly with lowered brain function.

As Ophir said: "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it." ®

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