Are you an expert multitasker? Check your email, answer that text, talk with your co-workers, drive your car—how many things can you track at one time? In our busy modern environment, people constantly multitask. But just what are expert multitaskers expert at doing?
I've previously argued that the risks of multitasking are that you perform all activities less effectively than if you focus (see Texting Zombies) and that multitasking can lead to missing critical new stimuli (like a unicycling clown, for instance). Of course, people continue to multitask. You may feel that you have to multitask just to keep up with your hectic 24/7 week. Some people may even be relatively effective multitaskers.
But not everyone prefers to multitask. Instead people vary dramatically in how much they multitask. When I ask my students about multitasking, many say they constantly do it. They study with the TV on, answer texts at the same time, and surf the web as well. But others tend to work in quiet environments and prefer to focus on one thing at a time.
Ophir, Mass, and Wagner (2009) studied high and low media multitaskers, comparing their attention capabilities. One possible outcome is that people multitask because they are able to do it; that is, they can effective track and manage multiple things at one time. First, Ophir, Nass, and Wagner looked at people's ability to stay focused on one task and avoid having their attention captured by distracting irrelevant stimuli. What they found is pretty cool. On standard versions of tasks with few distracters, high and low media multitaskers performed equally. But add in distracters and the high media multitaskers were more severely impacted than the low multitaskers—the expert multitaskers performed more poorly. In contrast, the low multitaskers were better at staying focused.
Most interesting was that Ophir, Nass, and Wagner used an additional task looking at effectiveness of task switching. A multitasker is constantly jumping between various cognitive activities. Thus you might predict they would show their real abilities when asked to jump back and forth between tasks. The opposite was true. High multitaskers were slower than low multitaskers performing the correct action when responding to two alternating cognitive tasks.
The high multitaskers were experts—experts at being distracted by everything around them. High multitaskers may have become proficient at constantly checking on all those cool media platforms crying for attention. Their focus is constantly bouncing from the phone to the computer, the TV, and the iPad.
Multitaskers have learned to let their attention be captured by the next new thing. In contrast, Ophir and colleagues argued that low multitaskers are able to effectively focus attention. Ophir, Nass, and Wagner did not argue whether people have a predilection to be multitaskers or if multitasking is something that develops based on living in a busy environment. I suspect that both nature and nurture contribute. Some people may prefer overstimulation and by seeking out such environments, they may train themselves to be easily distracted.