The Stanford professor who debunked the myth of effective multitasking, Clifford Nass, died unexpectedly of a heart attack on November 2. But he leaves behind his interesting work on the way humans interact with technology, and how some of our technological habits are making us less intelligent and less humane.
In his widely-reported 2009 study he found that the multitasking Stanford students he had come to envy, for all the different things they seemed to be able to accomplish at the same time, were actually doing less than their more old-fashioned peers, who concentrated on completing one job before moving on the next.
Before running the study, Nass’s own belief was that heavily multitasking students would be great at filtering out irrelevant information. A colleague guessed they’d be great at switching from task A to task B. A third thought they’d have well-organized memories of the various tasks they were doing. All three guesses were dead wrong.
In a 2010 Frontline interview Nass remembered his team’s reaction to the study’s results. “We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”
His work indicates that technology-driven multitasking is making humans dumber: specifically, worse at analytical reasoning, which is of course the stated purpose of going to Stanford, and with worse memories. He also found that dedicated multitaskers are worse at multitasking than those who don’t do it often. But they’re convinced they are great at it, even though they would get their many tasks done more quickly if they did one at a time. Multitasking also seems to affect a person’s ability to write more complex sentences and make more coherent longer arguments.
“We see less complex ideas,” he said in a 2011 lecture he gave at Stanford. “They’re living and writing in a staccato world.”
In an America that keeps shouting down common sense, his studies have been useful correctives. The excellent Frontline interview can be read here–go ahead and send the link to your college-age kids or grandkids, and see if they will read the whole thing in one sitting. The original 2009 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, can be found here.