Cognitive control in media multitaskers

ABSTRACT: Chronic media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous, although processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition. A series of experiments addressed whether there are systematic differences in information processing styles between chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. A trait media multitasking index was developed to identify groups of heavy and light media multitaskers. These two groups were then compared along established cognitive control dimensions. Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.

(AP story here.) In short, the more you try to multitask the worse you’ll be at it; or, perhaps, the worse you are at it the more you’ll try to do it. Contrast this to the Swiss writer Robert Walser, who understood the importance of single-minded focus on the one thing needful:

In 1933 his family had him transferred to the asylum in Herisau, where he was entitled to welfare support. There he occupied his time with chores like gluing paper bags and sorting beans. He remained in full possession of his faculties; he continued to read newspapers and popular magazines; but, after 1932, he did not write. "I'm not here to write, I'm here to be mad," he told a visitor.

(I was reminded of this anecdote by reading this post.)