Sunday, October 30, 2011

Multitasking is Distracting

“Fragmented attention is the norm—people today are continually multitasking”, reports Clifford Nass PhD, Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University and Director for the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab. In our present media saturated environment, media multitasking which is a person’s consumption of more than one item at the same time is very popular among the young.

He continued to tell the attendees at the Partners Healthcare Center for Connected Health Symposium held in Boston in October 2011 that more and more young people listen to music, text, chat, check email, use tablets, tend to be socially connected 24/7, and therefore are considered chronic multitaskers. However, studies show that heavy media multitaskers are poor at number of cognitive control processes.

Researchers have studied whether chronic heavy multitaskers process information differently than individuals who do not multitask on a frequent basis. In other words, has chronic multitasking changed our brains and affected top down thinking and produced a society less concerned with task completion.

People today are bombarded with several streams of electronic information and as a result, they do not always pay adequate attention, are easily distracted, have difficulty controlling their memory, and have difficulty switching from one job to another as compared to those individuals who prefer to complete one task at a time.

In an experiment, two groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four, or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame. They were told to ignore the blue rectangles and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that, but the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images.

The issue today is how to communicate health issues to chronically distracted users. Researchers will probably have to present information to multitaskers in different ways such as scattering information across windows, using product placement for multiple hits, using asides to present key information, continually update social networking software, and always present the newest information first since multitaskers are focused on the idea that new is better.

Clifford Nass PhD is the author of “The Man Who Lied to his Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships” published in 2010. For more details on the Connected Health Symposium, go to