Back to: Multitasking Page | Projects Page | Main Page

CNN TONIGHT: Multitasking Has Problems, Study Finds

August 5, 2001 Sunday Transcript # 080502CN.V70 (edited)

CNN ANCHOR: Stephen Frazier

GUEST: Prof. David E. Meyer, Ph. D., Dept. of Psychology, University of Michigan

FRAZIER: 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".

Professor, thank you very much for joining us.

MEYER: Hi, Stephen, good to be here.

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

MEYER: We (Joshua Rubinstein, Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans) 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 mental processes that we call executive control. They are, as mentioned in our study, sort of like your mind's CEO (chief executive officer), 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 people into our laboratory, we give them tasks to do that require them to time share between one task and another, as typically happens in multitasking, and we measure the speed and accuracy with which people can 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. By measuring exactly what amounts of time are taken by the responses that are produced under these circumstances, and also by measuring the responses' accuracy, we're able to, in effect, reveal the existence of these executive mental control processes, analyze them, and determine 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 to be so effective that we could perform two or more tasks, getting done with each of them as if we're only doing one task at a time. Unfortunately, however, 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 stressed, our executive mental control processes won't be this efficient, and extra time costs in either trying to do two tasks simultaneously, or switching back and forth between one task and another, will arise -- and in some cases, as revealed by our studies, these extra time costs are really extremely large. Percentagewise, the extra switching costs can be a 25 to 50 percent increase or more in the time taken to complete a task compared to what would be involved if you were only concentrating on that task alone, as opposed to switching between it and other tasks that 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 better. Did you find that borne out in your study?

MEYER: In our particular study, 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 types of extra switching time costs and inefficiencies in multitasking. Of course, it has been suggested, as you point out, that under some circumstances, perhaps there could be a gender difference or other types of differences between people having to do with their degree of skill, their personality type, and so forth. But insofar as we can tell under our particular circumstances, which are relatively representative of at least some daily life situations, there are no significant gender differences worth mentioning at this time, though this 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, Dr. David Meyer, who is at the University of Michigan with a fascinating study.

MEYER: Thanks for having me be here, Stephen.


Back to: Multitasking Page | Projects Page | Main Page