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Multitasking emotionally gratifying yet counterproductive

May 1st, 2012
Staff writer

Media multitasking — like texting while watching YouTube — is bad for productivity but makes people feel good nonetheless, according to a study by researchers at Ohio State University. While it’s no surprise that switching focus rapidly makes it difficult to concentrate, why people continue to multitask in spite of impaired performance is less obvious.

The study, published online Monday in the Journal of Communication, followed 29 college students for one month and had them record all of their media use, the type of activity it was used for, the duration of use and whether any other activities were performed simultaneously. The participants also reported why they used the media and how strong their need to use it was on a 10-point scale.

The findings show that students were more likely to multitask when their cognitive or habitual needs increased, such as when they needed to study. Researchers also found that students who multitasked met their emotional needs but not their cognitive needs, and those who multitasked once were more likely to do it again.

"There's this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive," said Zheng Wang, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. Wang and John Tchernev, a graduate student in communication at OSU, also showed  that people misperceive the positive feelings they get from multitasking and attribute them to accomplishment when they are actually from entertainment or enjoyment.

Students who, for example, reported watching TV while reading a book felt more emotionally satisfied than those who studied without watching TV, but they did not achieve their cognitive goals as well. This might imply that as the Kardashians’ television ratings go up, students’ test grades go down.

"They felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining,” said Wong. “The combination of the activities accounts for the good feelings obtained.”

Today’s media saturation and convergent technologies make it easier than ever to multitask. Most smart phones allow users to take a picture, upload it to Facebook and answer a call all at the same time, perhaps while watching the news on TV. People find instant gratification from this multiple media usage when new tweets and status updates pop up every instant accompanied by huge social pressure to stay up to date, the authors said. 

Activities like yoga and meditation, which focus on only one thing at a time such as breathing or a mantra, are an anomaly in today’s fast-paced world. Yet, based on this new research, simplifying life may be just the solution to finishing all that work by the deadline.