Tweeting while reading this post might weaken the cognitive benefits of your Fallout4 addiction

Did you find this link from Twitter, or from your email? And if you found this link on Twitter, are you returning to it periodically in case you feel like quipping about the content? Do you text others pictures of cats while you read those same articles?

We are constantly dealing with attention capture (potentially from venomous cucumbers) and have to ignore distractions using a number of strategies, even though not all distraction is as dangerous as texting while driving.

Most of us spend all day at our computers. We have computers in our pockets, at work, and at home. Whether we are watching Netflix, writing, or posting cat pictures on Facebook, we are tied to our technology. Rarely do we ever perform just a single activity at a time given that the technology is everywhere—the average American consumes more than 7 hours of media daily, with that figure increasing every year.

A large literature shows that we are not very good at multitasking. Most people seem to think they are excellent multitaskers but then suffer from a task-switching hangover that can last almost 25 minutes, during which time performance on the original task is impaired. Oddly enough, most job listings ask for multitasking abilities, and yet multitasking leads to us getting less work done.

If we have the impression that multitasking is important and useful, we should try to find a domain where multitasking helps us in some way. Playing action video games seems to enhance our ability to focus and switch our attention, with some arguing for a causal link between executive training and action video game playing.

But why are action video games particularly effective, especially when there are a number of other skills that require multitasking, like cooking, that do not bestow a benefit? And why does playing a game in a non-challenging way not confer benefits?

A recent study published in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics sought to get to the bottom of why certain games and technology consumption seem to influence cognitive skills and others do not. Researchers Cardoso-Leite and colleagues directly compared multitasking between several sources of media with action video game playing. Since most people are not active gamers but everyone could benefit from cognitive training, the researchers wanted to identify whether there other domains that confer the same benefits as action video games, specifically media multitasking. If you, dear Twitter-Psychonomics multitasking readers, have better cognitive control, then why?

Multimedia usage, in contrast to action video game playing, is a little difficult to define and requires assessing many possible combinations of ways to distribute one’s time. Cardoso-Leite and colleagues used the questionnaire developed by Ophir and colleagues in 2008 that assesses the usage of twelve different media types along with ratings of each combination of media and how often people multitasked. One intuitive feeling is that people who multitask all the time should have excellent cognitive control. Another possibility is that multitasking leads to the loss of cognitive control, but maybe people nonetheless multitask because they like to. Cardoso-Leite and colleagues decided to look at the joint contributions of action video game playing and media multitasking on a number of cognitive control tasks.

There are four tasks that are commonly used to study cognitive control. 1) In the AX-continuous performance task, participants are shown a sequence of colored letters. The task is to say “yes” in response to a red X if the last red letter was an A, but the space between the A and the X can be filled with a number of distractors or not. 2) The n-back task requires determining whether the current item matches the same item as n items before, which increases with difficulty the bigger n is. So, in a 2-back task, the sequence 1-2-3 would require a “no” at 3, but the sequence 1-2-1 would require a “yes”. 3) Task-switching requires either staying with the same task or moving to a different task in response to the same stimulus. So, for example, if participants saw an item like “a4”, one task might be to identify whether the letter was a consonant or a vowel, or whether the number was odd or even. 4) The filter task requires paying attention to a set of images like blocks. A piece of the array could change in orientation from the previous display, and participants would have to identify whether there was a change between the two displays. At the same time, the number of similar images in the background can vary.

In all of these four tasks people who engage in more media multitasking, surprisingly, do worse than people who do it less. At the same time, many have reported an advantage on these tasks in people who play action video games over people who do not, the opposite of the media multitaskers.

Of course, many people who play action video games also use media, and probably multitask, so Cardoso-Leite and colleagues measured video game usage as well as media multitasking behavior. Action video game players and non-video game players were classified into low, intermediate, and high media multitaskers based on the frequency at which they multitasked. Participants then performed the four tasks described above and performance (“efficiency”) was compared across all six groups. Efficiency is defined as reaction time divided by accuracy (e.g. 500 ms at 90% accuracy would mean an efficiency of 555 ms).

On the AX task (number 1 from above), heavy and intermediate media multitasking was found to impair performance in non-video game players, but at low and intermediate levels of media multitasking, playing action video games was a protective factor. In the n-back task (2), playing action video games did not help or hurt intermediate-level media multitaskers, but lower and higher levels of media multitasking were detrimental to performance. In the task-switching task (3), media multitasking did not negatively impact non-gamers, but at the highest levels of media multitasking, gamers suffered in performance. And finally, in the filter task (4), media multitasking did not affect non-gamers, but at the intermediate level, gamers were much better at identifying changes when they occurred.

The results were fairly heterogeneous but they do converge on the conclusion that high media multitasking does not uniformly lead to worse performance on cognitive control tasks. So, texting throughout the entire movie and also playing Bejeweled may not be so bad as far as tasks that require cognitive flexibility and handling distracting outside information. In only two tasks, the filter task and the AX task, being inclined to multitask might hurt you.

At the same time, gaming does not necessarily help you — across all of the tasks the results are not entirely consistent. Gamers do not seem to process distractors all that differently, but in some cases, like when they are used to light multitasking in other environments, they seem to perform better than non-gamers and both high and low multitaskers.

So for the moment, you can retweet this post or forward the email with the link to your lab, since it probably won’t hurt your performance on the other task you were doing previously.

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