A Response to Multitasking

Psychologists and others who study multitasking and its effects on human attention, learning, and cognition have yet to decide if the effects are “good” or “bad.” Much of the difficulty comes from the differences between the observations made in the highly controlled environments of the laboratory and the observations that are made in the real world (in Naturalistic settings). In the laboratory, subjects who are multitasking are measurably (and significantly) slower at almost any cognitive task that researchers devise. Scientists attribute the slowdown to the time necessary to activate different neural pathways to switch between the tasks. In the real world, the time limit imposed in the laboratory disappears, so the additional time necessary to complete a task does not appear to interfere with a multitasking subject’s performance of cognitive tasks. In general, researchers find that multitasking individuals perform as well as non-multitasking individuals in real world settings, but they take longer to complete the tasks. (This finding is applied only to tasks designed to be similar to academic tasks. Multitasking can be dangerous when one is driving an automobile or performing similar tasks that require focused attention and quick response. In those situations, the conclusion that multitasking individuals are “as good as others, but slower” is meaningless.)