Multitasking Turns Out To Be Recipe for Feeling Good and Doing Poorly

Most of us find multitasking appealing. And media multitasking—reading a book while watching TV—is irresistible, even when the results are less than optimal.

Most people aren’t good multitaskers. (See “So You Think You Can Multitask?”) It turns out they do it anyway because it makes them feel good, a study suggests.

Researchers had college students record their media use and other activities, keeping track of why they used various media sources and what they got out of it. Multitasking often gave the students an emotional boost, even when it had a negative effect on cognitive tasks, such as studying.

“There’s this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive,” said Zheng Joyce Wang, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

Students who watched TV while reading a book reported feeling more emotionally satisfied than those who studied without watching TV, but also reported that they didn’t achieve their cognitive goals as well, Wang said.

“They felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining. The combination of the activities accounts for the good feelings obtained,” Wang said.

Wang conducted the study with John Tchernev, a graduate student in Communication at Ohio State. Their results appear online in the Journal of Communication and will be published in a future print edition.

Many studies done in laboratory settings have found that performance worsens when people try to juggle multiple media sources simultaneously, according to Wang.

Surveys show that media multitasking is only becoming more popular. The question, Wang said, is why do people do so much multitasking if it actually impairs performance?



Wang and her colleagues studied the effects of multitasking on 32 college students who carried a device and reported on their activities three times a day for four weeks.

The participants noted each media use (computer, radio, print, television, radio) and subtypes (whether they were Web browsing or using a computer for using social networking). They reported the activity, duration and whether any other activities were performed simultaneously.

They also noted their motivation for each activity or combination of activities from a list of seven potential needs: social, fun/entertainment, study/work and habits/background noise. They rated the importance of each on a ten-point scale, and whether those needs were met on a four-point scale.

Participants were more likely to multitask when they reported an increase in cognitive needs (such as study or work) or habitual needs or both. In other words, students were likelier to multitask when they needed to study.

But a key finding was that multitaskers didn’t do a particularly good job of meeting the cognitive needs, which are in fact the reason for multitasking in the first place, Wang said. That’s probably because the other media use distracted them from the task at hand. Students reported that multitasking was very good at meeting their emotional needs, however.  

In addition, the results showed that the more people multitasked, the more habituated they became.

“We found what we call a dynamical feedback loop. If you multitask today, you’re likely to do so again tomorrow, further strengthening the behavior over time,” Wang said. It’s not helpful, she said, but the emotional reward keeps them doing it. “This is worrisome, because students begin to feel like they need to have the TV on or they need to continually check their text messages or computer while they do their homework.”