May 4, 2012 -- Multitasking may hurt our performance, but we do it anyway both out of habit and because it makes us feel good, a new study reports.
These feel-good benefits may help explain why we keep doing several things at the same time, even though other research has suggested this juggling act is not productive and performance suffers as a result.
"There's this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive," study researcher Zheng Wang, PhD, says in a news release.
Years ago, walking and chewing gum may have been considered multitasking. But these days, we have many more tech toys that can distract our attention from the job at hand.
In this small study, researchers from Ohio State University looked at the effects of media multitasking on college students, an age group where cramming for an exam while listening to music and also texting friends is a common activity. Other studies suggest that people ages 34 and under do more media multitasking than any other age group.
Instead of doing the research in the lab, the scientists decided to do it in a "real world" setting. They studied data from 19 students who were given a cell phone-like device to report all their activities for four weeks.
Three times a day the students submitted data on what types of activities they were doing and for how long. They were also asked to rate what needs the activities met and what motivated them to do each activity.
Researchers wanted to understand which of four possible needs -- mental, emotional, habitual, and social -- were being satisfied by media multitasking, and what were the strongest motivators encouraging students to do several activities at the same time.
The findings showed that emotional and habitual needs were most satisfied by multitasking, even if learning and thinking skills were reduced in the process.
"They are not being more productive -- they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work," says Wang, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University in Columbus.
For example, if a student is reading a chapter in a biology textbook while also catching the latest episode of Glee, the researchers found that multitasking gave the student an emotional boost even if he or she didn't get as much out of the reading assignment.
"[Students] felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining," says Wang. "The combination of the activities accounts for the good feelings obtained."
In other words, it made a dull but necessary task seem fun, less stressful, and more doable.
Not only did media multitasking help meet the students' emotional needs, it also appeared to be a habit. And like many other habits, it can be a tough one to break.
Media multitasking is not helping students, explains Wang, "but they get an emotional reward that keeps them doing it."