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15 Years of Research Basically Confirms What Mom Always Yelled: "Multitasking" Doesn't Exist

FRONTLINE: digital nation: interviews: clifford nass | PBS

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they're terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they're terrible at switching from one task to another.

This is an old interview, and possibly one we've linked to before, but I was really struck all over again both by how emphatically, empirically demonstrated it is that we *cannot* competently execute simultaneous information-related tasks, and how the expectations of multitasking degrade social currency. At the end of the interview, Nass points out that traditionally the most important thing a human being can offer you is his or her attention, and the most painful slight is to be ignored (incidentally, lots of research on this--and, if you wanna perform your own daily experiment: On even numbered days give every panhandler a little change, but don't look at him/her. On odd numbered days, don't give money to anyone, but stop, look him/her in the eye, and apologize for not having any change to offer. You will almost invariably be thanked more emphatically for stopping and making contact than you were for the money).

Part of the information-multitasking age is the expectation--even the social demand--that you reply to people with a quickness, thus making many feel forced to reply glibly and simultaneously (i.e., answering a text while we are in the middle of a face-to-face conversation, participating in multiple chats at once, etc.) The likelihood of undivided attention goes down, as does the length-of-delay before people feel ignored. We're being forced to interact more quickly, often at lower depth; everyone *feels* like s/he is giving everyone else all of his/her attention, and everyone also is more likely to *feel* like s/he is being ignored.

In other words, we've invented a perfect formula for feeling alone and anxious, and at the same time over-extended and crowded. It's the recipe for misery.