Expert Commentary

Cognitive control in media multitaskers

2009 study by Stanford University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on mental effects of consumption of several media streams at once.

Multitasker (iStock)

As information and communications technologies have proliferated, the practice of media multitasking has become increasingly prevalent. Debates over the effects — both the potential for reduced cognitive depth and the real-world outcomes of “distraction” — continue to play out.

A 2009 study by Stanford University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers, used experiments to compare heavy media multitaskers to light media multitaskers in terms of their cognitive control and ability to process information.

The study’s findings include:

  • When intentionally distracting elements were added to experiments, heavy media multitaskers were on average 77 milliseconds slower than their light media multitasker counterparts at identifying changes in patterns.
  • In a longer-term memory test that invited participants to recall specific elements from earlier experiments, the high media multitaskers more often falsely identified the elements that had been used most frequently as intentional distracters.
  • In the presence of distracting elements, high media multitaskers were 426 milliseconds slower than their counterparts to switch to new activities and 259 milliseconds slower to engage in a new section of the same activity.

The researchers conclude that the experiments “suggest[s] that heavy media multitaskers are distracted by the multiple streams of media they are consuming, or, alternatively, that those who infrequently multitask are more effective at volitionally allocating their attention in the face of distractions.” The findings raise profound, still-unanswered questions about human cognition in the future: “If the growth of multitasking across individuals leads to or encourages the emergence of a qualitatively different, breadth-biased profile of cognitive control, then the norm of multiple input streams will have significant consequences for learning, persuasion, and other media effects. If, however, these differences in cognitive control abilities and strategies stem from stable individual differences, many individuals will be increasingly unable to cope with the changing media environment.”

Keywords: technology, cognition

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