The Human Factor: The Perils of Multitasking
Multitasking is accepted as a given in our modern technology-driven society. Anyone with a teenager has shaken his head at the sight of his child doing homework while listening to music at a loud volume through earphones, and at the same time carrying on multiple texting conversations and surfing the Internet. While a multicore computer can perform multiple tasks simultaneously, people have only one brain. Since multitasking is becoming so prevalent, it has been thought that some people are especially good at multitasking, or that people get better at it over time as they get used to doing several things at once. Others thought that multitaskers were actually really good at switching rapidly from one task to another, so it appeared that they were doing two or more things at the same time.
A Stanford University study has shown that this is not true. Stanford professor of sociology Clifford Nass, along with associates Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, decided to investigate what it was that gave multitaskers the ability to do what they do. The researchers assembled two groups of people. One group included those who regularly did lots of multitasking, while the other group did very little multitasking. The first experiment tested the subjects’ ability to ignore extraneous information and focus only on what was important. The research team was surprised to discover that while those who did not multitask had no problem successfully completing the exercise, the mulitaskers were very distracted by extraneous information.
Next the researchers decided to test whether multitaskers were better at storing and organizing information. Once again the multitaskers failed miserably, while the control group did fine. The researchers were not going to give up that easily. They figured that if multitaskers were not good at filtering out extraneous information and could not organize their memories better, maybe they were better at switching between tasks faster than others. Again the control group unaccustomed to multitasking outperformed the subjects with lots of multitasking experience.
Basically, the researchers found that when presented with many sources of information, the multitaskers found it difficult to filter out irrelevant information, focus in on certain information or keep things separate in their minds. This is in line with other research showing that multitasking results in a strong negative impact on performing even simple tasks, and that it slows people down and results in more mistakes. This is more than a little scary when you consider what it takes to fly an airplane. The “simple” task of manually controlling the airplane involves taking in multiple streams of information through our eyes, ears and other senses, and then sending out the proper signals to our hands and feet so they all work together to make the airplane do what we want.
Now up the ante to instrument flying. The pilot has to switch rapidly between different sources of information to construct a mental picture of what the airplane is doing and how to get it to go where he wants it to go. And that is still just for manually flying the airplane. Next we need to add in air traffic control instructions, often delivered at machine-gun speed. Then there is the requirement to interpret the instructions from ATC through the use of paper or electronic charts and to fly, or program the autopilot to fly, the desired route. At the same time the pilot has to keep track of the weather at his current location, along his route and at his destination. Finally, add in questions from nervous passengers and personal needs like eating, drinking and bladder pressure relief. As one pilot responded when queried by ATC about his varying altitude, “It’s OK, I’m done now.”