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A conversation about our evolving relationship with technology and the dangers of multitasking

Previous research by Stanford professor Clifford Nass, PhD,  on the mental health effects of media multitasking is relevant (and frightening) for pretty much anyone with a computer or mobile phone. Between checking our e-mail every 45 seconds, texting while watching television and listening to music while working, a number of us are constantly multitasking. But rather than reflecting some sort of superhuman ability to effectively think multiple thoughts at once, this type of behavior is actually taking a serious and permanent toll on our attention spans—not to mention our productivity.

In the following Q&A, Nass discusses why multitasking is so ubiquitous and how balancing media- and non-media activities can help us save our scattered brains, as well as his new book on how we interact with technology and what it reveals about human relationships.

Your research has revealed that media multitasking can have some very negative effects on brain function. Should we be worried about the proliferation of technologies that seem to encourage multitasking?

Definitely. No technology can force you to multitask, but there’s tremendous evidence that when you give people the ability to do multiple things at once they will take advantage of that. We see that a lot among teenagers but also in homes, in the workplace, etc. When you give people the opportunity to do multiple things at once they’ll do so. The most obvious example of this is the mobile phone. People will be happy to text or check things on their phone while doing almost anything. Another is the fact that computer screens are getting larger, which means that you’re able to look at multiple things at once. What you see is the phenomenon of people always having multiple things open on their computers, for example, working while listening to music while chatting and looking at the Web.

Do you have any advice for a media-user trying to rescue his or her attention span and productivity level from the constant stream of information and stimulation available to us today?

There are two things that really seem to help a great deal. The first is one that we have good evidence for already: making face-to-face time sacred is extremely powerful. When you spend time face-to-face with people and don’t use other media during face-to-face communication, it really helps with people’s concentration.

The second one, though we have less evidence for this, is the 20-minute rule. When you go to do an activity, commit to doing it for 20 minutes. People seem to think that doing an activity for one minute 20 times is the same thing as doing it for 20 minutes uninterrupted. It’s really important to use one medium for at least 20 minutes. You ask people, how many things really would you miss out on if you didn’t check on them for 20 minutes because you were doing something else? And the answer is none. So this feeling that you’ve always gotta be checking chat messages, e-mails and Facebook is clearly false. People will admit that if you ask them.

When I talk with my students, they’ll say, “All right, it hurts productivity now and again, but when I’m doing something really seriously like a problem set I’m not multitasking.” But it doesn’t matter. The fact that you’re chronically multitasking affects your brain even when you’re not multitasking. People that chronically multitask are constantly distracted.

One of the examples is the experiment where you’re told to count how many passes basketball players make and then a guy in a gorilla suit walks by. It turns out that the low multitaskers didn’t notice the gorilla, whereas the high multitaskers noticed the gorilla but they got the number of passes wrong. And that really seems to be the pathology of multitasking. People are distracted so that they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing, and they’re not good at doing what they should be doing.

On another note, I'm very interested in your new book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, in which you discuss how we treat computers and computerized systems like people. Could you give an example?

Sure. Perhaps the most obvious way to see this is if you ask me something about yourself, I’m going to give you a very positive answer. But if someone else asks about you, I can be more honest. And what we’ve demonstrated is that the same thing applies to computers. If the computer asks you a question about itself (such as “how helpful was this program?”), you’ll give a nicer answer than if a different computer across the room asked the same question.

The idea of the book is that we can use all these experiments we do with computers to understand how social rules work and use them as guidance to give to people. The book takes those deep-seated social rules and explains how people can use them in their own lives, particularly how to use them to succeed in the business world and the workplace.

Given your research on media multitasking and personifying computers, how would you define the modern media user's relationship with technology?

What’s happened is that, since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve seen a phenomenon where every time a medium appears it seems to steal time both from other media activities and from non-media activities. People love consuming media and have as far back as we can measure. Every time a new medium appears it steals more attention. This is what we call the partial displacement theory: we will never totally give up an old medium for a new medium, we just increase the amount of time we spend on media by stealing from non-media activities. As more and more media and more content appear, we just keep on adding them. Rather than giving anything up, we try to squeeze in the new thing, and thus we get the current phenomenon of multitasking.

Previously: Is living in an always-on world diminishing our ability to think and work?, Do we have dual-core brains? and Background music may diminish cognitive performance
Photo by John-Morgan

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