Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Multitasking Affects Ethics

Margaret Steen

How Multitasking Affects Ethics

By Margaret Steen

Making ethical decisions requires paying attention -- to both the people involved and the situation. And research into media use suggests that the increase in multitasking, as well as social networking, may be having long-term effects on users’ ability to pay attention.

In a talk to the Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Clifford Nass examined the short- and long-term effects of multitasking and social networking on ethics in business. Nass is the Thomas More Storke Professor of Communication at Stanford University, and his talk was called "Multitasking: The Short- and Long-term Effects on Ethics in Business."

Since the Industrial Revolution, the cycle of new information technology has largely displaced older ones: When television appeared, radio listening dropped but continued at a reduced rate. However, the new technologies have also taken time away from non-information activities, increasing the overall time spent with media and information activities.

At some point, of course, there is little time left for media activities to acquire. In that case, information consumers face a choice: if they want to use a new technology, they either have to stop using an older technology, or they can use more than one technology at a time.

"Multitasking is the result of not allowing new media to bump out old media," Nass said. Today, you can text while watching a movie, or get multiple sources of content on your computer or smart phone at the same time. "The ability to consume multiple content streams at one time has grown enormously."

Today, the average college student uses three media simultaneously; the top 25 percent of media users use four or more streams. Nass has studied what happens when people are receiving unrelated information from several different media at once. (This is different from looking at multiple documents related to the same project.)

For the past 20 years, his and other studies have shown that multitasking impedes performance of tasks. For example, when a television station displays a headline tracker at the bottom of the screen with different content than the regular program, viewers retain less information overall: less of the content from the headline tracker and less from the television show. "Still, people love it," Nass said!

In addition to the immediate effects on performance, chronic multitasking affects how well people can focus on relevant information, memory management, and task switching – even when they are not multitasking. This has implications for corporate policies that encourage multitasking (by requiring quick responses to email and phone calls, for example).

In one experiment on writing quality, workers were given 30 minutes to write an essay. On the side of their computer screen, tidbits of information appeared. For half the participants, the information was related to the topic of the essay. For the other half, it was irrelevant. Participants who frequently multitasked wrote essays that were graded "inferior" when they saw irrelevant information on their screens.

"Irrelevant side information is devastating to people who multitask all the time," Nass said.

Tests of how multitaskers manage their working memory suggest that chronic multitasking makes it difficult to manage details – even when they are not multitasking -- which could well make ethical analysis and decision-making more difficult.

The same is true for tests of how quickly people are able to switch from one task to another. While it might seem that multitaskers would be good at this, they are actually slower at it than those who don't multitask. "They can't help thinking about what they're not doing," Nass said.

Brain images of multitaskers show that they are using more of their brains to switch tasks than non-multitaskers do. "We're causing brains to lose their ability to focus," Nass said.

Workplace policies that require rapid switching between tasks "are creating environments in which people are led to failure," Nass said. "If this was a chemical causing these things, there would be a massive OSHA investigation."

High multitasking leads to poor executive functions, making planning and problem solving more difficult. Multitaskers have trouble focusing on what is important and are unable to ignore irrelevant information and external interruptions to their environment.

Multitasking also leads to problems with social interaction, which is critical to workplace success. Emotional intelligence, a key predictor of success, comes from practice: paying attention to others. Staring at a screen or being distracted while talking to someone makes it more difficult to judge and react to that person's emotions.

In addition, social media are formulated to give greater weight to positive emotions, making it seem as though everyone else is happy all the time and not giving people enough experience with more complex negative emotions. Texting, for example, reduces the intensity of emotions and may be used as a way to escape from conflict.

In a study of 8-12-year-old girls, those who multitasked and used social media frequently showed less social and emotional development than their peers.

The situation is not hopeless, Nass said. He suggests the "20-minute rule": focusing on one task for at least 20 minutes at a time. He also suggests that employers encourage face-to-face interactions among employees and reconsider policies that encourage multitasking, such as promoting a "culture of responsiveness" above all else.
"Responsiveness is a lovely characteristic, but what we forget is that responsiveness is a trade-off against thoughtfulness," Nass said.

Margaret Steen is a freelance author.

Aug 1, 2013