I hate to break it to you, but typing on the computer while listening to music, texting friends, scrolling through social media, and trying to tune into your favorite TV show may not be the best way to study. No matter what we’re doing, in today’s society we are always on. Admit it – every time you sit down to work, study, write, or whatever it is, you are faced with the challenge of blocking out distractions. You are probably interrupted by TV, music, texts, calls, and not to mention all your social media alerts. Do you really think your brain can pay attention to that many distractions? Do you believe you have the power to multitask? Well my friend, I have some news for you.
Last year, I participated in a science fair with my co-op. When I first found out about it, I was not excited. Science definitely isn’t my favorite subject, and I had no idea what to do for my project. So what did I do? Obviously, I took a quiz to see what project I should do! (duh!) But seriously, there is a website called Science Buddies where they offer a free quiz to take to help you figure out a science fair project. (If you have an upcoming science fair, I’d definitely recommend it!) Anyway, one of my results was to test people’s ability to multitask. I read the details, and the rest is history. This experiment dealt with psychology and the human brain, and the results were fascinating! Curious? Keep reading to see what I found! ;)
Can the brain efficiently focus on two things at once?
The goal of this experiment was to see if multitasking is a myth, and how different people respond to it.
People, regardless of age or gender, are not able to multitask as successfully as they believe they can.
BACKGROUND INFO/FUN FACTS:
- In our society, we are “always on.” Being “always on” increases your allostatic load, which is defined as “the wear and tear on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated chronic stress.”
- In switching from writing an essay to responding to a text message, you’ll not only disrupt your train of thought and switch your focus, but it will also take you an average of 3 minutes to re-focus enough to continue your essay.
- Switching between multiple tasks results in scattered thoughts, a weakened memory, and will make you more tense, anxious, and stressed. A 40% decrease in productivity will also occur, and your IQ will drop by an average of 10 points.
- Switching leaves your brain exhausted, specifically your prefrontal cortex (PC). Without the PC, you wouldn’t be able to make decisions, solve problems, set goals, or think creatively.
- When engaged in conscious activities, the PC can only do one thing at a time, or you will make mistakes and the quality of your work will decline.
- A study of office workers showed that they are constantly switching their focus, glancing at their inbox 30-40 times per hour.
- A study of college students showed that while they walked across campus while talking on the phone, 75% of them did not notice a clown riding on a unicycle nearby. Although they were looking at their surroundings, the unusual sight wasn’t registering in their brain because they were distracted. This is called “inattentional blindness,” and is just one of the dangerous effects caused by multitasking.
- Hand the participant a piece of paper and a pen.
- Ask them to write the sentence “cats and dogs are fun” and the numbers 1-17 on their paper. (I chose an easy sentence so I could test younger participants.)
- Time them while they are preforming this task, then write down their time next to the sentence and numbers. (steps 2 & 3 will be known and Part A of the experiment.)
- Next, ask them to write “cats and dogs are fun” and the numbers 1-17 again, but this time have them write one letter, then one number, letter, number, and so on, alternating between letters and numbers until they finish have finished the sentence and reached the number 17. (C, 1, A, 2, T, 3, S, 4, etc.)
- Time them again to see if there is a difference between the first and second tasks. Record the second time on the paper. (Steps 4 & 5 will be known as Part B.)
- Repeat steps 1-5 with other willing participants.
- Evaluate all test results, and compare to other participants of their gender and age group.
DATA ANALYSIS AND RESULTS:
To analyze my experiment data, I used two methods – observation and time comparison.
While watching my participants complete the experiment, I noticed that on Part A they were more relaxed, their handwriting was neater, and their mistakes (if any) were very minor. The time in which it took them to complete Part A was also much faster. However, while completing Part B, participants appeared to be much more stressed, rushed, and chaotic. Many made noises of frustration and/or confusion, as well as needing to stop and collect their thoughts for several seconds before continuing. I also noticed that almost everyone made mistakes and had messier handwriting. There was also a significant time increase on Part B.
#2: Time Comparison
As I said in the Experimental Procedure, I timed each participant on Parts A & B. When I had run all the tests I needed, I placed every participant into their proper and age category. After that, I calculated the average times for Parts A & B in every age group and gender. As expected, there was a significant increase on Part B of the experiment. I then found the average time differences between each gender and age group. The results are below.
Aged 0-10: Part A – 35 sec. Part B – 82 sec.
Aged 11-21: Part A – 23 sec. Part B – 38 sec.
Aged 22-49: Part A – 18 sec. Part B – 31 sec.
Aged 50+: Part A – 19 sec. Part B – 39 sec.
Aged 0-10: Part A – 28 sec. Part B – 53 sec.
Aged 11-21: Part A – 28 sec. Part B – 49 sec.
Aged 22-49: Part A – 17 sec. Part B – 30 sec.
Aged 50+: Part A – 32 sec. Part B – 50 sec.
#1: My hypothesis was correct, as I found that regardless of age or gender, people cannot multitask as efficiently as they believe they can.
#2: Multitasking – contrary to popular belief – takes longer than preforming two tasks individually.
#3: If you multitask, your work will be messier, you’ll make mistakes, and your stress levels will increase.
#4: My experiment results showed that based on the average time differences, males aged 0-10 and 50+ were faster at Part B than females, and females aged 11-21 and 22-49 were faster at Part B than males.
My data results and conclusions affirmed my hypothesis by showing that everyone struggles with multitasking. Not only does it take people longer to complete a task, but the quality, neatness, and productivity levels decline as well. People also tend to feel much more stressed while multitasking. Overall, multitasking is definitely not the best option if you’re looking to be productive and produce quality work.
If you’re interested in testing this experiment, I highly encourage you to try it on yourself, family, or friends! It’s a fun, simple activity, and you can see how well you multitask!
What did you think of this project? Were you surprised by the results? Did you test it on yourself? If so, what were your results? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts and findings!
– Meredith :D