Research in Cognitive Problem Solving, Part 2

Another interesting paper at the American Accounting Association’s Doctoral Consortium was about the effects of multitasking, presented by Curtis Mullis of the University of Alabama–Tuscaloosa. There’s lots of research that shows that multitasking lowers performance on the tasks being multied; this researcher, though, was interested in the question of whether multitasking decreases performance on subsequent tasks. In other words, if I spend my morning multitasking, will my performance on afternoon tasks be compromised, even if I’m allowed to concentrate on them exclusively?

Mullis theorized that the answer should be Yes. The idea being that humans only have so much self-control they can exert during the day. Every time we deprive ourselves of something we want to do, we have a little less self-control in the bank for the day. This is known as ego depletion.

Multitasking, the theory goes, depletes ego a couple of ways. First, changing gears all the time is cognitively difficult, wearing us down. Second, by its nature multitasking means not completing tasks–putting things down before they are done. The little endorphin rush from completing tasks helps replenish ego. This replenishment is denied during multitasking.

I should note here that this research is about forced multitasking–that is, multitasking that’s necessary because some data is missing that would otherwise allow you to complete the task. This happens all the time in auditing. Auditors begin working on a task only to discover that the client hasn’t supplied them with everything they need, so they send the client a note and then move on to another task while they wait for the missing information. Mullis is not talking about multitasking in the sense of constant interruptions from instant messaging and so forth.

And, indeed, when multitaskers were compared against serial taskers in a subsequent detail-oriented auditing task, the multitaskers did significantly worse. Interesting!

Just as interesting, the researchers found that this effect was wiped out by including simple messages of gratitude between the multitasking and the experimental task.

All the disclaimers apply here about non-peer reviewed, non-replicated research, but it certainly suggests that we can do more to equip employees to be aware of how their minds react to multitasking, and potential self-help strategies for ego replenishing. Likewise for supervisors and how they can help those they ask to multitask.


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