Multimedia multitaskers are mentally less fit than those who undertake one task at a time, a Stanford study finds. According to the researchers conducting the study of about 100 Stanford students, multitaskers are deficient in memory and attention. "They're suckers for irrelevancy," says communication professor Clifford Nass. "Everything distracts them." In a series of tasks designed to measure how well test subjects ignore distractions, store and organize information and switch between tasks, the test-group of students who self-identified as multimedia multitaskers performed worse than those who didn’t.
Not only did multitaskers have difficulty with distractions in front of them, they also distracted themselves by thinking about things that weren’t there.
"They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," says Eyal Ophir, researcher at Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.
"The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds," Ophir says.
The researchers are not sure if it is a trait that multitaskers are born with or if it is created by multimedia bombardment.
"When they're in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they're not able to filter out what's not relevant to their current goal," says associate professor of psychology Anthony Wagner. "That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information."
Being a distractable multitasker myself, I suspect that distractibility itself is the reason people juggle tasks. While it’s alarming that multitaskers underperformed in all facest of the study, I really doubt it is electronic media’s fault: it’s just the way some minds are built.