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The Student News Site of University of California - San Diego

The UCSD Guardian

The Student News Site of University of California - San Diego

The UCSD Guardian

Open tabs: An exploration of multitasking behavior

Photo by Allen Chen/ UCSD Guardian

Two students are studying together in Geisel when one begins counting the tabs open on the other’s laptop screen. He counts up to 22 tabs on his friend’s display, but she closes her screen before he can continue.

Twenty-two tabs: the menu for Din Tai Fung, an open search asking Google “Is Will Smith Okay?”, a National Geographic article about how penguins microsleep, an article about the questionable ethics and sustainability of Shein, an open Shein cart with 12 items in it, an article about Travis Kelce’s earnest misspelled tweets (sub “squirl” for “squirrel”), three Google docs, and a Tom Yum soup recipe, among many others. 

How many of those tabs could any one person be thinking about simultaneously? Perhaps students are exhibiting task-switching, a form of attempted multitasking. The habit doesn’t seem to stop at the computer screen. With life becoming more demanding and hectic, students often turn to multitasking to cope. 

According to the American Psychological Association, multitasking falls into one of three categories: attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously, switching from one task to another, or performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. 

Students and professionals are told both directly and subconsciously that not only can they multitask, but that they must multitask to be successful.

Whether this feat is really possible, though, is another debate. Human attention is a limited resource. Some psychologists model visual attention as being similar to a spotlight in that it can only be shown in one direction. One’s primary focus, or what one pays the most attention to, is akin to the brightly lit area in the center of the spotlight’s beam. 

Focus can also be understood as being like a zoom lens, choosing to narrow the focus to concentrate on detail or widen it to be aware of more things simultaneously. However, focus cannot be zoomed in and out at the same time. Even though humans are constantly receiving an overwhelming amount of information from their five senses, it is only possible for a small portion of this information to make it through to conscious awareness. 

Attention helps human beings to perform well at a given task. However, humans often fail to pay attention to a noticeable but unforeseen object because their attention is directed toward another task. This phenomenon is called ‘inattentional blindness.’ In the context of multitasking, it is helpful to examine divided attention, or the ability to distribute attention to two or more tasks, and observe the harmful impact of inattentional blindness

It is possible to do two things at once if each task requires different sets of cognitive resources. For example, it is possible to build legos and listen to a podcast at the same time, sweep the floor and listen to music, or vacuum and scare your cat with the vacuum.  

However, talking on speakerphone in the car while driving is not necessarily using two different parts of the brain. Research has shown that while talking on the phone, humans have a tendency to create mental images, which uses the same visual resources needed for driving safely. If these visual resources become stretched beyond their capacity, it is possible for a driver to fail to see a hazard and drive directly into it. Therefore, not everything makes it through to conscious awareness. 

At best, multitasking can result in inefficiency. At worst, it can be dangerous with grave consequences. 

Some psychologists study the impact of multitasking on cognition when people attempt to perform more than one task at a time. They find that the mind and brain are not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists liken the brain’s job during multitasking to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.

In theory, multitasking serves as a method of saving time. However, in reality, multitasking can cost individuals more time. 

When dealing with tasks that use the same cognitive resources, one can switch attention from one task to another and back again, but when this attention is overloaded, information is missed or lost. The result is almost always that tasks are performed less effectively than if they were completed one at a time. 

All three types of multitasking create a mental juggling that can be costly to the brain. According to the American Psychological Association, completing more than one task at a time, particularly more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity

Psychologist Dr. Lindsay Blooms claims that “Multitasking is physically impossible for the human brain.” Blooms purports that more cognitive effort is required to switch back and forth between two tasks than is required to focus on completing one task. 

What we are actually doing is not multitasking. According to Blooms, this task switching is called “continuous partial attention.” 

Continuous partial attention, a form of multitasking, is associated with the fear of missing out and is particularly relevant with incessant phone notifications, email updates, social media updates, pings, dings, and reminders. Continuous partial attention describes the tendency to attempt to keep up with several modes of communication at one time. Continuous partial attention requires the brain to pick one thing to focus on and then switch back and forth between the two. 

Students live in the age of interruption and distraction, constantly distracted by the pings and dings of phones updating from social media notifications and incoming texts and emails. 

The average student’s attention is suspended for thousands of brief moments throughout the day. What does this do to the brain?

According to Kevin Madore, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, heavy media multitasking and attention lapses are directly related. People who engage in social media multitasking have lapses in attention prior to remembering information and are more likely to forget information learned whilst multitasking. Therefore, for most, there are switching costs — a reduction in performance accuracy or speed that results from shifting between tasks.

While 97.5% of people in the world are incapable of multitasking, 2.5% of individuals globally are cognitively equipped to successfully multitask. These individuals are known as supertaskers. Supertaskers do not seem to suffer from the negative effects of multitasking. 

Supertasking refers to executing two or more tasks concurrently without any perceivable decline in cognitive performance. 

Jason Watson and David Strayer of the University of Utah psychology department found that supertaskers outperform their counterparts in experiments that measure tasks or goals independently. Most students, and most Americans, are not supertaskers. 

In the U.S. today, particularly in academia and professional workspaces, one’s busyness is often correlated with one’s success; the busier one is, the more successful they are. Busy can often be a term worn as a badge of honor, a character trait adopted to portray one’s strong work ethic and even success. However, scientists have demonstrated that multitasking may not be the ticket to this success. 

Ultimately, humans lack the capacity to process everything at once. Although a student may be able to talk to their best friend while cleaning their room, listen to their Spotify Wrapped while baking baklava, or follow along to a true crime podcast while building a Dobby Lego set, tasks that require the same cognitive resources also require focused attention to avoid inattentional blindness. 

Turning phones on silent while studying, limiting distractions to increase attention and focus, and focusing on one task at a time can significantly decrease cognitive cost and energy expended, ultimately increasing one’s productivity. 

Unless a student is a supertasker, it may be the most cognitively beneficial to bookmark those 22 tabs and close all but one.

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About the Contributor
Allen Chen, Illustrator
Allen Chen is a third year HCI Design major, and a lactose-intolerant ice cream lover.
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    Wendy WarrenDec 5, 2023 at 8:48 am

    From one who notoriously multitasks, I’m bookmarking tabs as I type. Kind of. lol. Love this article! It shines light on how my own behaviors may need some attention!