Media multitasking is increasingly common in this day and age. If all this flow of information makes it hard for you to pay attention and stay focused, you are not alone. According to new research by EyalOphir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner at Stanford University, people who multitask suffer from a weaker self-control ability. The following excerpt is from the Scientific American article "Portrait of a Multitasking Mind" by Naomi Kenner and Russell Poldrack:
The researchers asked hundreds of college students fill out a survey on their use of 12 different types of media. Students reported not only the number of hours per week that they used each type of media, but also rated how often they used each type of media simultaneously with each other type of media. The researchers created a score for each person that reflected how much their lifestyle incorporated media-multitasking.
They then recruited people who had scores that were extremely high or low and asked them perform a series of tests designed to measure the ability to control one's attention, one's responses, and the contents of one's memory. They found that the high- and low- media-multitasking groups were equally able to control their responses, but that the heavy media-multitasking group had difficulties, compared to the low media-multitasking group, when asked to ignore information that was in the environment or in their recent memory. They also had greater trouble relative to their counterparts when asked to switch rapidly between two different tasks. This last finding was surprising, because psychologists know that multitasking involves switching rapidly between tasks rather than actually performing multiple tasks simultaneously.
On the positive side, heavy media multitaskers may be better at reactive control when they are quick to respond to the relevant cues from the external world. This ability can be useful in the environments where things change fast. It also helps to build habits more easily in response to common situations.