The difficulty of multitasking

Carrie, L., Cheever, N., Rosen, L., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers in Human Behavior 25. pp. 483-489.

The authors consider an important issue–how multitasking differs among age groups–but fail to adequately limit their definitions or explore deeper hypotheses. For example, they refer to an earlier study that defines the most common multi-tasking behavior among 14-16 year-old youth as, “listening to audio media while travelling,” an activity that hardly seems to fit; the activity would be appropriate to include if it were driving while listening to music among 17-19 year-olds. The hypotheses they consider seem superficial:

  • that younger generations will multitask more
  • that generations will choose different tasks to combine
  • that  younger generations will find it easier to multitask
  • that generations will find different task combinations difficult

The authors measure daily task activity by generation and self-reported combinations (and the corresponding difficulties of those combinations) of tasks by generation. The findings are predictable:

  • younger generations report more multitasking
  • all generations combine the same tasks (which may be attributed to cognitive limits)
  • the oldest generation reported more combinations to be difficult
  • all generations found the same combinations difficult (which again may be attributed to human limitations)

The primary problem with the research is the complete reliance on self-reporting. In their defense, the authors list three limits on the research:

  1. no distinction was drawn between task switching and parallel processing
  2. the study measured only decisions made about multitasking, not the actual ability to multitask (task congruence, not task performance)
  3. future research may show common costs of task switching regardless of generation (which could lend credence to the claim of cognitive limits)
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