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Are Web-driven multitaskers suckers for irrelevancy?

From the "There's no such as multitasking" files, part two.

Multitasking may be fun or stimulating, but it's not an effective way to get things done or retain information, according to a study released by Stanford University researchers this week.

"We kept looking for what they're better at and we didn't find it," said Eyal Ophir, one of the study's lead authors and a researcher in Stanford's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

The researchers said they tested a group of "high tech jugglers" who tend to carry on some combination of e-mail and instant messaging conversations, text messaging and Web surfing, while also doing homework and watching TV.

A group more inclined to complete tasks one at a time was given the same three sets of tests.

I reported earlier on [information overload expert ](/bus-news/article.php/3737601/Information+Overload+Is+There+a+Cure.htm)Jonathan Spira, who challenged the notion multitasking is even possible. Spira's point was that humans can't literally do more than one thing simultaneously -- there's always a gap, even if its nanoseconds, between our actions. And as a Stanford release on their study noted:

"The brain just can't do it. But many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to."

Not so, according to the study's findings. Multitaskers are "suckers for irrelevancy," said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Everything distracts them," Nass said in a release.

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The three tests are described [here](http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html). In each case, the low multitaskers did much better than the heavy multitaskers in terms of sorting out information and remembering things.

**Is it nature or nurture?**

The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But whatever the cause, the researchers are convinced these modern day multitasker mnds aren't working as well as they could.

"When they're in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they're not able to filter out what's not relevant to their current goal," said Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology involved in the study.

"That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information."

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