A recent New York Times article, by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, addressed the issue of multitasking. Specifically, the article discussed whether the act of multitasking has an effect on our cognitive functioning. Instead of managing multiple tasks at once, we are actually switching quickly from one context to the other, or performing “rapid toggling between tasks.” It seems that interruptions are the culprit when it comes to the quality of work that is produced when one is “multitasking,” but what actually happens to our work quality when we are engaged in multiple activities? In order to answer such questions, The New York Times asked Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology, and Eyal Peer, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon, to design an experiment. They looked at how individual cognitive functioning is effected by interruptions.
The researchers examined three groups, all of whom performed a standard cognitive skills test. Two of the groups were informed that they might be interrupted and given further instructions, while the third group completed the task with no anticipated interruptions. The two “interruption” groups were each interrupted twice; the third group was not. On a second test, the same group again went uninterrupted. Of the other two groups, one group was again interrupted; the second group was not, but was rather told to anticipate interruptions during the test. The researchers found that distraction, or even the anticipation of a distraction, led to poorer performance. The two interrupted groups provided incorrect answers at a rate 20% greater than the uninterrupted group.
The test was given to each group again. Part of the group was told they would be interrupted, but they were not. Those who were interrupted, however, did better, answering incorrectly at an improved rate of 14% of the time. Those who were warned of an interruption, but were not in fact interrupted, improved by 43%. What does this enormous change mean? Dr. Peer suggested that this group was able to prepare and learn from experience, as their brains adapted to the potential of interruptions. The authors concluded that the results suggest that “it is possible to train yourself for distractions, even if you don’t know when they’ll hit.”