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Multitasking Has Problems, Study Finds

Aired August 5, 2001 - 18:07   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Most people have heard the term multitasking, and many of us are increasingly asked to do that in the workplace, but whether we're driving and talking on a cell phone, piloting a jumbo jet, or surfing the Web and using other computer programs at the same time. A new study says multitasking has problems and costs.

Professor David Meyer joins us now from Detroit. He worked on this study, published in the August issue of "the Journal of Experimental Psychology."

Dr., thank you very much for joining us.

DR. DAVID MEYER, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: Hi, Stephen, good to be here.

FRAZIER: What was it that led you to examine this phenomenon?

MEYER: We were interested in this phenomenon for a number of reasons. During the past ten years, experimental psychologists and cognitive scientists have become especially interested in a mental processes which we call executive control, they are, as you mentioned, sort of like your mind's CEO, and they also function in much the same way as operating systems do on modern computers, allocating the resources of the system in order to make for efficient information processing.

FRAZIER: How do you know that? How do you track that?

MEYER: Well, the way we do this is, we bring individuals into our laboratory, we give them tasks to do that require them to time share between one task or another, as typically happens in multitasking, and we measure the speed and accuracy with which people could perform these tasks while they're either doing only one task at a time, or have to switch back and forth between at least a couple of different tasks.

And by measuring exactly what amounts of time were taken in the accuracy of the responses that were produced under the circumstances, we're able to, in effect, reveal the existence of these executive mental control processes, analyze them and determined exactly what their components are.

FRAZIER: Are they working as well as they -- we might like? MEYER: Well, that really depends a lot on the particular circumstances. Ideally, we would like them to be so effective, we could perform two or more tasks, getting done with each of those tasks as if we're only doing one task at a time.

Unfortunately, except under relatively special circumstances where the tasks are routine, we've had a lot of practice at them, and we're not feeling especially under stress, our executive mental control processes won't be this efficient, and time costs in either trying to do two tasks simultaneously, or switch back and forth between one task and another, will arise -- and in some cases, as revealed by the studies, these time costs are really extremely large.

Percentagewise, they can be in the order from anywhere from 25 to 50 percent time increment, taken to complete a task compared to what would be involved if you were only concentrating on that task, as opposed to trying to switch between it and other tasks which are under way, supposedly, but not actually at the same time.

FRAZIER: That's a huge percentage. I'm curious to know whether there's a gender difference, people say men focus on one thing at the exclusion of others; women can balance a lot. Did you find that borne out in your task?

MEYER: In our particular tests, where we brought both young males and young females -- college students -- into the lab, there was no evidence whatsoever of any gender difference in performance. Both the males and the females under our circumstances, showed these type of costs.

It has been suggested, as you point out, that under some circumstances, perhaps there could be a gender difference or other types of individual difference between people having to do with their expertise, their personality type, and so forth. But insofar as we can tell under these particular circumstances, which are relatively representative of at least some daily life circumstances, there are no such gender differences worth mentioning at this time, though it should be followed up by further investigation.

FRAZIER: Sounds like it's worth following up on. But we're going to have to move on for now, Professor. Thank you very much, David Meyer, who is at the University of Michigan with a fascinating study.

MEYER: Thanks for having me be here.

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