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Multitasking with Equal Attention: Social Research Essay


In the modern developed society, the concept of multitasking is starting to play an integral role in both casual and corporate lives. According to the definition given by the American Psychological Association (2006), multitasking occurs when a person attempts to perform two activities simultaneously, switch from one activity to another, or complete two or more activities in quick succession (para. 2). Psychologists have studied the concept of multitasking for decades to determine how it affects the brain activity and whether the performance of one task influences the performance of another. Also, researchers were trying to analyze the connections between task characteristics and the necessity to have extra time for task completion. In the majority of conducted studies, researchers perform task-switching experiments for finding out the costs of such type of mental ‘juggling.’

Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to explore the concept of multitasking as to the individuals’ abilities to perform multiple activities simultaneously while giving an equal amount of attention to each task. The topic of multitasking is relevant because everybody multitasks in the quick-paced modern environment, which requires the majority of individuals to complete assignments tasks as quickly as possible and move on to other activities. Because the majority of studies analyzed for this literature review concluded that multitasking deteriorates the success of completing different tasks simultaneously, it is expected that this research will come to a similar conclusion. The fact that multitasking negatively affects an individual’s mental processing and the effectiveness of performing multiple activities simultaneously, dedicating more research to whether it is possible to give different tasks the same level of attention can still become a fruitful area for studying. When it comes to the structure of the paper, it will include the literature review of studies previously conducted on the concept of multitasking, the description of the research design and the results of each study, the influence of the research on the understanding of the field, the review of controversies that do not support the thesis statement outlined in this paper, and conclusions regarding the current state of knowledge about the problem topic. Lastly, the paper will identify future areas for study and the importance of further research as to the possibility to multitask and give each task an equal amount of attention.

Literature Review

Experiments and Findings

Articles chosen for the literature review on the topic of multitasking approached the research problem from different angles as to the conducted experiment, the sample size, as well as the research background. The article “Predicting High Levels of Multitasking Reduces Between-Tasks Interactions” by Fischer and Dreisbach (2015) aimed to determine whether an individual’s performance in multitasking activities can be enhanced by the prediction of multitasking levels by conducting an item-specific proportion manipulation of temporal task overlap with forty-four participants. One of the strengths of Fischer and Dreisbach’s (2015) experiment was the reliability of the results despite the fact that it was limited to a relatively small sample size. The researchers concluded that the high temporal proximity between two similar tasks increased the interference. The conducted experiment gave evidence of the possibility to significantly modulate the interference between two tasks predicting the temporal correlation between them. The findings of the research are important for providing information about how to regulate cognitive control in all types of tasks, either dual or single. As to the relevance to the topic at hand, this research will be useful for determining whether multitasking and giving tasks an equal amount of attention will be possible with the help of multitasking prediction.

It is important to draw similarities between Fischer and Dreisbach’s (2015) research and the study “The Problem State: A Cognitive Bottleneck in Multitasking” by Borst, Taatgen, and van Rijn (2010). To investigate the cognitive bottleneck in multitasking, the researchers conducted three experiments with different participants in order not to taint the integrity of the research. All of the three experiments were beneficial for testing the primary hypothesis of the problem state resources acting as a ‘bottleneck’ when it comes to performing different tasks at the same time. The initial hypothesis was supported by the conducted experiments, similar to the conclusions drawn by Fischer and Dreisbach (2015). It is crucial to mention that the hypothesized multitasking bottleneck can impact the interference of the task because “intermediate representations of the problem state are to be maintained in the same condition for more than several seconds” (Borst et al., 2010, p. 365). Accounting for the problem state in multitasking will help the current research to determine possible interference in the task switching to distribute equal attention between different tasks.

When discussing innovative approaches to the issue of how multitasking limits an individual’s ability to achieve success in activity performance, it is important to mention the study “Training improves multitasking performance by increasing the speed of information processing in human prefrontal cortex” conducted by Dux et al. (2009). The research had an objective to show that multitasking performance can be significantly improved through training. Researchers conducted two experiments (7 participants) throughout which their brain activity was scanned through Functional magnetic resonance imaging. Despite the fact that the experiment was limited to a very small sample size that could potentially limit the results of the study, it was found that during the stages of behavioral training, participants’ reaction times were greatly reduced in both dual- and single-task conditions (Dux et al., 2009). The study is significant for presenting an innovative method for improving people’s abilities to perform different tasks simultaneously and giving them an equal amount of attention.

The last study, which is important to single out for the innovative approach towards multitasking, is “Who multitasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multitasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking” by Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Medeiros-Ward, and Watson (2013). Similar to the previously mentioned studies, Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013) aimed to answer the question of how multitasking can be limited or improved. By exploring people’s perceptions of their multitasking abilities, impulsivity, and sensation-seeking characteristics, researchers managed to determine how the mentioned factors could affect actual multitasking abilities. When conducting an experiment with 310 participants who were asked to perform questionnaire-related activities and Operation Span tasks, Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013) successfully determined that people’s perception of multi-tasking abilities positively correlated with their actual performance. Furthermore, individuals that had reported higher levels of sensation seeking and impulsivity showed better success results in performing multiple tasks simultaneously. The study will contribute to the current research by providing evidence for how specific individual traits help people in giving different tasks equal amount of attention.

While four of the above-mentioned studies presented a broad approach to the concept of multitasking, the following three studies will focus on specialized fields. “The multi-tasking paradox: Perceptions, problems, and strategies” by Appelbaum, Marchionni, and Fernandez (2008) explored the context of the office environment, where employees have to perform different tasks simultaneously because of the fast pace of business and the wide access to information. Because office-related tasks are present in many types of environment, the study is significant for reviewing relevant literature on the topic and outlining the key components of multitasking that can be present in the majority of modern office-related situations. One of the most interesting findings of the research was paradoxical: despite the fact that multitasking decreases the productivity in completing a specific task, it does not have any effect on the overall productivity of the organization. The study by Appelbaum et al. (2008) will benefit the current research by providing a unique perspective on multitasking and explain how professionals can give different tasks equal an amount attention.

Contrast to Appelbaum et al. (2008), who explored the theoretical side of multitasking in the office environment, “Multitasking in work-related situations and its relevance for occupational health and safety: Effects on performance, subjective strain and psychological performance, subjective strain and physiological parameters” by Paridon and Kaufmann (2010) took a specific experiment-oriented approach. By involving 64 participants in the experiment, researchers conducted a driving simulation while performing an activity prevalent in an office environment. The experiment was beneficial for determining that the quality of task performance deteriorated in the context of multitasking. Although the study was limited to only examining similar-life scenarios contrast to actual experiences, the initial hypothesis was supported by the results of the experiment, which suggested that multitasking significantly impacts the performance.

The last article “Can you multitask? Evidence and limitations of task switching and multitasking in emergency medicine” by Skaugset et al. (2015) explored the concept of multitasking in a complex environment of emergency healthcare facilities. By analyzing available literature on the topic, researchers examined task switching and multitasking activities in the sphere of medicine. It was concluded that individuals in the medical profession employ a range of multitasking and switching skills to effectively perform their duties and withstand stress in emergency situations. Such an ability to switch between tasks comes with experience. The research also found that medics are forced to deal with interruption and breaks, which occur because of the constant flow of patients. The current research will benefit from drawing examples from emergency practice because medical professionals possess vast experience when it comes to multitasking in stressful situations.

Influence on the Understanding of the Field

When analyzing the articles chosen for research, it was found that each study presented a unique approach towards multitasking, which helped create a broad understanding of the concept and determine whether multitasking is possible with giving the same amount of attention to each task. It is important to distinguish studies by Fischer & Dreisbach (2015), Borst et al. (2010), Dux et al. (2009), and Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013) for presenting innovative approaches towards multitasking, which may have a potential impact on the understanding of the field. For example, while Dux et al. (2009) proved that behavioral training could positively impact one’s ability to multitask, Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013) made a compelling discovery that individuals with higher levels of sensation seeking and impulsivity could be successful in performing multiple tasks simultaneously. These findings imply that the research on multitasking can be conducted in different directions and contexts. Despite the fact that the reviewed articles all found that multitasking is an activity that can be successfully performed by the small minority of the study participants, it is significant to distinguish the value brought by the research.

Current research will greatly benefit from the review of the mentioned studies since all of them make unique contributions to the understanding of the field and offer a background for determining the possibility of giving different tasks equal amount of attention during multitasking. Research conducted in the context of the modern office-related environment has also given a profound understanding about the importance of multitasking. Because of the free access to information and the increased demand of the society to perform tasks as quickly as possible, employees are now encouraged to develop multitasking and task switching skills. Research conducted by Skaugset et al. (2015) added great value to the understanding of multitasking as to how medical professionals could switch between tasks and serve patients while withstanding stress in emergency situations.

Controversies that do not Support the Thesis

The majority of the reviewed studies were greatly limited by the relatively small sample size involved in the experiments. The thesis statement as to one’s ability to give equal levels of attention to tasks performed simultaneously is greatly limited was supported by the majority of the reviewed articles. Furthermore, the question of “can we multitask and give each activity equal attention” received a negative answer on the basis of the reviewed findings. However, it is important to mention the controversial nature of the research conducted by Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013), which studied the connections between personality characteristics and multitasking abilities. While it was found that sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and positive perceptions of one’s multitasking ability improve actual performance, the assessment of the mentioned characteristics was conducted through questionnaires, which presented subjective rather than objective data.

Conclusions and Future Areas of Research

After analyzing relevant literature on the topic of multitasking, it can be concluded that an individual cannot give the same amount of attention to multiple tasks due to the range of complications. While behavioral training or prediction of the task complexity can enhance one’s multitasking performance, the evidence presented by the research suggested that the initial multitasking ability of different individuals was greatly limited. It is important to mention that people with enhanced levels of sensation seeking, impulsivity, and increased perception of the multitasking ability can achieve success in performing different tasks simultaneously, although the same cannot be stated about all individuals.

Implications for future research are vast as to determining how an individual can multitask and give each tasks same levels of attention. This study reviewed relevant literature on the topic of multitasking and presented a range of unique approaches towards the researched topic. Because the review of the literature did not show any evidence of the possibility to give the same attention to different tasks performed simultaneously, future research can take an experimental approach and explore the research question on the basis of a practical study. The importance of conducting an experiment regarding multitasking while giving same levels of attention to different tasks is associated with the fact that multitasking is hard to explore on the basis of a literature review. By involving a small sample size of participants and asking them to perform usual multitasking activities, it will be possible to give an answer to the research question. Although it is expected that future research will not conclude that an individual will be able to give equal attention to different tasks performed simultaneously, the findings such as the positive impact of behavioral training on the multitasking skills may be integrated into the further studies.

References

American Psychological Association. (2006). . Web.

Appelbaum, S., Marchionni, A., & Fernandez, A. (2008). The multi-tasking paradox: Perceptions, problems, and strategies. Management Decisions, 46(9), 1313-1325.

Borst, J., Taatgen, N., & van Rijn, H. (2010). The problem state: A cognitive bottleneck in multitasking. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 36(2), 363-382.

Dux, P., Tombu, M., Harrison, S., Rogers, B., Tong, F., & Marois, R. (2009). Training improves multitasking performance by increasing the speed of information processing in human prefrontal cortex. Neuron, 63(1), 127-138.

Fischer, R., & Dreisbach, G. (2015). Predicting high levels of multitasking reduces between-tasks interactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 41(6), 1482-1487.

Paridon, H., & Kaufmann, M. (2010). Multitasking in work-related situations and its relevance for occupational health and safety: Effects on performance, subjective strain and psychological performance, subjective strain and physiological parameters. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 4, 110-124.

Sanbonmatsu, D., Strayer, D., Medeiros-Ward, N., & Watson, J. (2013). Who multitasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLoS One, 8(1), 1-8.

Skaugset, M., Farrell, S., Carney, M., Wolff, M., Santen, S., Perry, M., Cico, S. (2015). Can you multitask? Evidence and limitations of task switching and multitasking in emergency medicine. American Emergency Medicine, 68(2), 189-195.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Multitasking with Equal Attention: Social Research." August 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/multitasking-with-equal-attention-social-research/.

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