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Psychologist Dr. Kelly Henry (personal communication, March 21, 2004) a professor at Missouri Western State University says that the relationship between the terms does seem to correlate, but it is a stretch to use the terms interchangeably (2004). Finding an exact date when “divided attention” began being examined was extremely difficult. What researchers do know is that many people have studied divided attention tasks since the science of psychology was initially discovered in the mid 1800’s.
In contrast, the term “multitasking” has only recently been coined. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary the word has been in use since around 1966. There is speculation that the computer age has popularized the word. Another theory as to why this word has become so widely used is the ever-increasing amount of mothers and fathers who take care of the children while doing laundry, cooking dinner, and helping with homework.
An example of a negative impact that divided attention or multitasking can cause is when someone’s attention is stretched as in “divided attention,” memory is negatively affected. Psychologist John Arden (2002) writes in his book about theories on multitasking that “Multitasking decreases your memory ability.” He also claims that for every new task that you take on “you dilute your investment in each task.” (Arden, 2002)
This reasoning makes sense. We have all seen the people who get overly involved in activities. They take on so much that they cannot possibly do everything to the best of their ability.
Another example of this reasoning can be easily illustrated by the overabundant use of cell phones while driving. Most people will agree that someone who is talking incessantly on their phone, such as making flight arrangements, while driving cannot possibly be giving their full, “undivided” attention to the road. Those same people would also probably agree that the radio could be just as distracting. So where do we draw the line on what should and should not be considered permissive behavior while driving a motor vehicle?
Dr. David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, claims that multitasking can actually slow you down (Seven, 2004). He says that through research he has discovered that the more complex activities a person takes on, the more time it actually takes in the long run. His point is in agreement with Arden’s (2002) written views. Again, when you take on multiple tasks, you cannot perform them all at an optimum level. Meyer is also in agreement with Arden that when you are multitasking too much, you can experience short-term memory problems or difficulty concentrating.
With this being noted, multitasking or divided attention cannot be entirely bad. There has to be balance and some good that can come from it. Example of some benefits of multitasking and divided attention tasks can be found in various situations. One of these is combat operations. Richard Pew and Anne Mavor co-author a book about human and organizational behavior and how it applies to military situations. They stress the importance of divided attention and multitasking when in battle. They explain that these processes “are ubiquitous in combat operations” (Pew & Evans, 1995, 112).
The authors give examples of what an infantryman might have to do simultaneously. Things like “decide on a general course of action, plan his path of movement, run, and fire his weapon” are included in the illustration of the importance of divided attention and multitasking (Pew & Evans, 1995, 112). The process of multitasking or divided attention in this proposed situation could very well prevent the infantryman from losing his life. How much more important can that be?
In this case, multitasking may still produce some of what psychologists claim are the negative “side effects” of multitasking including an increase in the possibility of short term memory loss and the increase in time being taken to perform the tasks (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001). However, the obvious positive end result of the infantryman maintaining his life outweighs any “side-effect” that a scientist might attribute to the performance of multitasking.
In contrast, think back to the example of the distractions that divided attention or multitasking can cause in a vehicle. The potential positive result of finalizing flight arrangements or finding a really good song on the radio cannot possibly outweigh the negative risk of causing a fatal car accident because you chose to do those very things.
Dr. Glenn Wilson (2005) recently performed a study for Hewlett Packard to explore the productivity of multitasking. What he discovered is astonishing. The average worker’s functioning IQ, a temporary qualitative state, drops 10 points when multitasking. That is more than double the four point drop that occurs when someone smokes marijuana.
Interestingly, the functioning IQ drop was more significant in men participating in the multitasking study by Wilson. This brings us to the controversial debate over if there are differences between genders in their abilities to multitask.
There is speculation that women are more efficient at multitasking. Dr. Christina Williams, the chair of the Psychology Department at Duke University, has done studies with rats, where the male rats have exhibited more “tunnel vision” than female rats (Williams & Meck, 1990). Williams study discovered that female rats use multiple cues, including examining landmarks of the maze and geometry to navigate a maze, while male rats just used geometry. This implies that women use their minds to synthesize multiple cues from the environment, while men would rather use single cues.
Additionally, there is a biological difference. According to MRIs performed, women have a larger corpus callossum (Halpern, 2000). The corpus collossum is the area of the brain that handles communication between the two hemispheres. It is responsible for synthesizing the information from the left and right side of the brain. In women, the corpus callosum is wider than that of men’s brains, which might enable the two sides to communicate better with each other. This is a theory as to why women might multitask more efficiently.
There are people (e.g., Meyers, 2003) opposed to the idea of women being better multitaskers. However, they do not make a case for men being superior with multitasking abilities. Instead, they claim that there is no significant difference between the genders with multitasking. According to Dr. David Meyer (2003) the genders are fairly even in their multitasking abilities. He says that, “The two sexes typically come out about the same, on average” (Shellenbarger).
Dr. Marcel Just, Director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University agrees with Meyer. His studies on brain mapping, with participants between the ages of 18 and 32, show that women only score higher when asked to listen to two things at the same time (Just, 2001). In every other cognitive tasks pairing, there are no statistical differences. His conclusion is that men and women are equally productive with multitasking (Mahany, 2005).
My hypothesis is that women will score higher on the assessment of multitasking skills. This is based on the new evidence that is emerging about the corpus callosum.
The participants were 58 college undergraduates at a small Midwestern university from classes including business, communication, and introductory psychology classes. There were 25 males and 33 females that participated.
Students were each given a folder that included an informed consent for the participant to read and sign, piece of lined paper, and a copy of a printed book review. The test facilitator played music from a CD and rang a small bell.
The participants were each given a piece of lined paper and were instructed to transcribe the provided printed book review. It was explained to the participants that while they were writing, they would also be listening to music. They were to tally how many times they heard the word “You” from the songs, in the box at the top right hand side of their lined paper. In addition, when they heard the bell ring, which rang on average every minute, they were to gather their materials and move to a different chair. When the song was finished, the participants were to stop writing. The folders were collected by the facilitator. The participants also filled out a small survey to control for confounding variables. An example of the questions on the survey is “Please rate how familiar you are with this song on a scale between 1 and 5.”
The participants were evaluated on two criteria to assess their level of efficiency when multitasking. These criteria were production and accuracy. Production was determined by the number of words transcribed from the book review during the eight minutes, fifteen seconds that the songs played. Accuracy was judged by the difference of the number of tally marks recorded by the participants, from the actual number of times the word “you” was vocalized in the songs. The scores were analyzed by a one-way ANOVA, to see if a statistical difference was present between the genders.
In regards to production, although the females (134.7) did have a mean score that was slightly higher than that of the males (132.7), there was no significant difference. Although both groups’ means showed that they underestimated the number of “you’s” in the songs, there was a significant difference showing that women were more accurate, F(1,56) = 8.57, p<.01.
Researchers have been studying productivity as the sole component of efficiency in multitasking. This new proposed component of multitasking, accuracy, provides a new perspective. While the idea of productivity is an important facet, accuracy is equally important. Even typing tests that judge a typist’s “words per minute” take accuracy into account in combination with productivity (Wpm Typing Test, 2005).
Accuracy without productivity is useless. You can be the most accurate person in the world, but if you cannot efficiently produce what is required of you, you are not useful in that environment. The same can be said about outstanding productivity without accuracy. If you are constantly making errors in your productivity, you are actually slowing down the process you are involved in.
Multitasking efficiently is simply the balance of accuracy and production. The implications from this study make the case that women are more detail oriented, meaning that they pay closer attention to the little things, like listening for the word “you” in the songs. However, women also hold their own in regard to production while maintaining a detail oriented perspective.
The origin for these acquired skills can be related to the always popular social psychology debate of “nature vs. nurture.” Do women naturally possess these skills, a question of nature, or do they acquire these skills through routine exposure to their environment, a question of nurture? Women might be born with the ability that allows them to be more accurate and equally productive when multitasking, when compared to men. This idea would support the corpus collosum theory that a wider corpus collosum in women makes it possible for the women to multitask more efficiently. However, it could also be that these skills that women possess are acquired in response to a demanding environment, including housework, responsibilities relating to children, along with a job outside the home, etc. Further research should be done to determine if gender differences in multitasking are a biological issue or a social one.
Eysenck, M.W. (1993). Principles of cognitive psychology. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Halpern, D. (2000). Sex differences in cognitive abilities. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hewlett Packard. (2005, April). Abuse of technology can reduce UK workers’ intelligence: HP calls for more appropriate use of “always-on” technology to improve productivity. UK: Author.
Just, M. A., Carpenter P. A., Keller T. A., Emery, L., Zajac, H., & Thulborn, K. (2001). Interdependence of nonoverlapping cortical systems in dual cognitive tasks. NeuroImage, 14, 417-426.
Mahany, B. (2005, November 26).The trouble with multitasking. KansasCity Star, pp. Features E9.
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Pew, R., & Mavor, A.(Eds.). (1995). Modeling human and organizational behavior: Application to millitary simulations. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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Seven, R. (2004, November 28). Life interrupted: Plugged into all, we`re stressed to distraction. Pacific Northwest: The Seattle Times Magazine, Retrieved April 1, 2006, from http://seattletimes. nwsource.com/pacificnw/2004/1128/cover.html.
Shellenbarger, S. (2003, February 28). Juggling too many tasks could make you stupid. Career Journal, Retrieved January 31, 2006, from http://www.careerjournal.com/columnists/workfamily/20030228-workfamily.html.
Williams, C.L. & W.H. Meck. (1990). Organizational effects or early gonadal secretions on sexual differentiation in spatial memory. Behavioral Neuroscience, 104(1), 84- 97.
Wpm Typing Test. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2006, from http://www.customtyping.com/on-line-typing-tests.htm
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