Multitasking and Selective Attention

Multitasking and Selective Attention

by Althea Need Kaminske

When I got married, I had no idea that my husband would become my office mate. COVID19 has affected our lives in a number of ways, one of them being that we now both work from home in the same home office. For most of my career I’ve been lucky enough to have my own office. It had its fair share of distractions (I used to eat lunch with the lights off, careful to type quietly so that I couldn’t be heard by the students who somehow only had problems that only I could solve during the 20 minutes I had to myself to eat lunch) but by and large it offered me a place to focus on work. Now, every email answered, every blog post written, every meeting zoomed, is a minor miracle of focused attention as my husband takes work calls in the background and we take turns with baby duty. I am not a great multitasker, and chances are that you aren’t either.

When people say they are multitasking, i.e. doing more than one task at the same time, what is really happening is that they are rapidly switching between tasks. When we engage in task switching, several things have to happen. We have to disengage with the first task, find the new task, find the new task parameters, and engage in the new task. Our brains are able to do this very quickly, so it feels like we are doing two things at once. And, in fact, the more practiced or experienced we are at a task the faster we get at task switching and the more automatic the task becomes. Like walking and chewing gum.

When we talk about multitasking, however, we’re usually talking about tasks that are a bit more complicated than walking. Like driving and talking on the phone (1) or typing and email while answering questions about your grocery list. For these slightly more complicated tasks, task switching comes at a cost. We’re slower to respond, we make more mistakes (2), and our memory for the tasks we’re trying to do is worse (3). It’s this last consequence of task switching that may explain why we feel like we are multitasking. We don’t remember the mistakes we made or the information we missed. This is most obvious to me when I diligently remind students of an upcoming exam or assignment at the end of a class period, only to have them insist later on that they were not warned. My well intentioned reminders were given when students were distracted – finishing up their notes from the class, packing up their materials, and anxiously waiting for the class to end so they could get to lunch, their next class, or meet up with their friends. For the students who were distracted it was as if I never gave the reminder. They felt they were successfully multitasking (listening while checking the time on their phone) because they weren’t aware of the information they had missed.

Another example of our inability to remember or process information that we didn’t pay attention to is this excellent demonstration of inattentional blindness from Daniel Simons. Inattentional blindness refers to the finding that we do not appear to remember or even perceive information that we do not attend to. We are blind to it. If you haven’t already, I recommend taking a minute to watch the video.