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Multi-Taskers More Distracted Than They Think

  • Jessica Berman

Multi-tasking has a negative impact on productivity and affects a person's ability to pay attention, according to a new study.

Multi-tasking has a negative impact on productivity and affects a person's ability to pay attention, according to a new study.

Cognitive resources taxed in the switching process

In today’s hectic world, many people find themselves multi-tasking - managing several important chores at once. They tend to think they’re doing a pretty good job of it but a new study finds that people are more distracted than they realize while trying to pay attention to more than one task at a time.

Researchers invited 40 people who said they thought they were pretty good at multitasking to participate in an experiment in which they were given a laptop computer and television set with a remote control.

The volunteers - 20 students and 20 older staff members at Boston College in Massachusetts where the study was conducted - were told they could do whatever they wanted for a half hour except talk on their cell phones.

Investigators set up cameras around the room so they could monitor where the participants’ attentions were focused. The idea was to monitor how often the volunteers’ gaze switched back and forth between the computer and the TV.

"People who think they are better multitaskers are actually not better multitaskers," says study lead author Adam Brasel, who is with the school’s department of marketing.

Brasel and his colleagues expected the volunteers’ attention to be diverted often but researchers were surprised by just how frequently subjects switched their gaze from one activity to the other.

"When we got the results back we saw that the average was around 120 times in 27 and half minutes," he says. "That’s far more than we would have predicted and it’s far more than the subjects themselves reported switching."

The participants thought their attention had been diverted only about 15 times in the half hour. The average gaze length was two seconds for the television and six seconds for the computer.

Brasel says there’s a growing body of evidence that multitasking is disastrous for work that requires concentration because of what he calls "switching costs."

"Every time you move your attention from one task to another or from one media to another, you essentially use up a lot of your cognitive resources in that switching process because you have to reallocate all of your attention and thinking to that new task. And so every time you switch back and forth, you’re losing time and losing productivity and losing your ability to pay attention."