Dumbing Down: Media, Multi-tasking and Misrepresentation

Please wait for my brain to reload

A while back I posted a piece on Unnecessary Context Switches & the Myth of Multitasking looking at some of the research on the topic.  The consistent result: the more things you try to do at once the worse you will perform at each of them.  Despite this, many working environments expect us to constantly switch our attention and, if anything, the expectation to multi-task is increasing and more of us are succumbing.  At the individual level this can be stressful and reduce satisfaction in your work.  At an organizational level (and I suspect at a macro-economic level) this expectation is a drag on productivity.

I kept seeing new and interesting information and so began writing a follow-up post.  Meanwhile, multi-tasking is increasingly appearing in the general lexicon and as a meme of mass advertisers where multi-tasking is a shorthand for the stress of modern life. For example, vitamins are sold as an “antidote” to multi-tasking in ads that cynically play on myths about gender and multi-tasking, and through-out it the message is that multi-tasking is stressful (that seems true), heroic (that seems stupid) and unavoidable (mostly false).

The research for this post lead instead to an exposition on the quality of media coverage of science.  What started as reading about the “dumbing down” effects of multi-tasking revealed the “dumbing down” effects of media on science.  That’s not surprising to most of us, but looking at the mechanics is, I think, interesting.

I should add that my motivating concern is that, in this instance, bad research and bad media coverage of research will lead to skepticism.  The problem here is that solid science reaches much the same conclusion as the bad science.

Email and Infomania vs. Cannabis and Holidays

It all started with digging into references in a newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald (17/Aug/2011) about a range of research on what can degrade your IQ / performance.  The article appears to be a reprint of this article from the The Telegraph in the UK published 2 days earlier.  The article packs a punch with the following claims/citations in only 700 words:

  • Email bombardments, or “infomania”, drop your IQ by 10 points.  Citation: a 2005 study by psychologist Glenn Wilson, visiting professor at Gresham College, London
  • Apparently that’s double the effect of smoking cannabis.  No citation provided.
  • Having a drink on the flight to your vacation destination drops another 10 to 20 points off the IQ.  Citation: Alcohol Concern (which I think is this UK organization, but can’t be certain)
  • Two weeks of relaxation, sunbathing, heat, alcohol and more can take 20 points off IQ, damage your vocabulary and shrink your brain.  Citation: Prof Siegfried Lehrl of the University of Erlangen in Germany
  • For men, the vision of the women in bikinis “instigates generalised impatience in intertemporal choice” apparently meaning that “men’s judgment and self-critical faculties are compromised”. Citation: a 2008 study for The Journal of Consumer Research (no author specified).

Does this mean a potential 50 point drop in IQ from a couple of weeks of mild hedonism, relaxation and restoration?  Journalism practices don’t extend to stating whether the effects are additive.

[Aside: It remains my view that genuine breaks from the intensity of work are a GOOD thing.  People should expect to return from holidays in a different frame of mind and the first day back will be a struggle to re-adapt to the pace of work. Switching between work and holidays is perhaps the mother of all multi-tasking; or a reboot; or a suspend/resume (take your pick of computer analogies). I haven’t had the opportunity yet to track down research on the difference between “connected” and “disconnected” vacations or the impact of relaxation but it does seem like a good future topic.]

Dumbing Down Science

My inner skeptic was buzzing.  Regular readers of this blog may notice that I don’t like to rely on general media reporting or internet articles except when they present ideas that pique my curiosity.  From any media reference I try to dig deeper to find the underpinning academic research.  In some cases it’s been impossible to find the academic basis to a pop-claim so I drop the subject.  More often the underlying research can be located and usually adds extra interesting findings, better explanation and of course better context such as experimental design and limitations.

The usual chain of information is something like this.

  1. Academic research is published in an authoritative journal.
  2. The university’s media group issues a press release to a formula: 1 part eye-catching research finding that will excite general media interest; 1 part eye-catching quotes from a senior researcher; a hint of substantive content on the study.
  3. Somebody in the media picks it up and prints/posts an article including the eye-catching content and dropping the substantive content.
  4. Other journalists all over the world jump on the bandwagon with a syndicated or derivative article (i.e. mostly copied).

Along the chain the original research findings are increasingly diluted and often overlaid with journalist opinion, potentially complementary ideas and so on.

In my experience the weak link in the chain is most likely the university’s own media department by being responsible for “dumbing down” research findings in their press release.  As I see it, the mandate of the media department is to get attention and publicity for the university and eye-catching research is fodder for media attention.  A press release really isn’t a good way to communicate nuanced scientific results but they are most effective.  So we’re left with universities dumbing down research but without the work of media departments we’d see even less coverage of important science in the general media.  It’s a conundrum to which I offer no solution.

However, it turns out that the key content of the newspaper article on multi-tasking and holidays is an example of something worse and may be…

Birth of a Myth?

The general media often fall prey to something worse than shallow press releases.  Businesses, PR agencies, spin doctors and self-serving experts often concoct bogus science or psuedo-science in the interests of gaining attention or some other benefit.  This is my particular experience of this.

After digging into the newspaper article on multi-tasking I was near completion of an article on “infomania” (that is, the effects of email bombardment on IQ).  I then came across personal website for Dr. Glenn Wilson who had performed the study on “infomania”.  Importantly his site carried a summary of the Infomania experiment for HP.  His summary is enlightening both about the experiment and subsequent publication and media reporting.  This is my summary of his summary plus commentary (the original summary is a quick read at just over 1 page).

  • The research was commissioned by  Porter-Novelli, the London publicists of Hewlett-Packard.  It was intended to be published along with poll-based research of 1,000 people.
  • There were 8 participants who were all employees of the Porter-Novelli agency and the experimental structure had some rigour. [Ed: Perhaps having employees of the commissioner as subjects could result in behavioral bias.]
  • The effect of technological distraction (email and phone calls) was to diminish IQ test performance to 132.75 from 143.38 achieved under quiet conditions to 132.75 under “noisy” conditions.  [Ed: that suggests the average participant has “Superior intelligence” not far off genius level.  Not necessarily a problem, but certainly not average person.]
  • The effect of technological distraction was greater on males than females.  [Ed: this supports a wide-spread gender “myth” but it’s not clear the result here has statistical significance]
  • Technological distraction caused a marked increase in self-reported stress; men reported lower stress than women in both quiet and noisy conditions.
  • Physiological stress indicators were only mildly affected; skin conductance reduced only slightly (i.e. sweat rose) but heart rate and blood pressure showed no consistent effect.   Males were higher on all physiological stress indicators which contrasts with their lower self-reporting of stress.
  • No statistical significance figures are provided for any of the results.

Dr. Wilson’s summary concludes with the following statement.

“This study was widely misrepresented in the media, with the number of participants for the two aspects of the report being confused and the impression given that it was a published report (the only publication was a press release from Porter-Novelli). Comparisons were made with the effects of marijuana and sleep loss based on previously published studies not conducted by me. The legitimacy of these comparisons is doubtful because the infomania effect is almost certainly one of temporary distraction, whereas sleep loss and marijuana effects on IQ might conceivably be more fundamental, even permanent. 

I have prepared this note in response to numerous media enquiries and have not researched the topic since 2005.

Glenn Wilson, 16/1/2010″

The results would be interesting if they were substantive.  However the very limited size of the study, the potential for the participants to be biased in their performance (because of their potential vested interest in stronger outcomes for a more exciting press release) and the (intended) lack of scientific peer review all means we have to discount the findings … and the subsequent reporting by media around the world.

Clearly some media have contacted Dr. Wilson directly and hopefully were set straight about the “research”.  Nevertheless there are many articles on the web about the research where the journalist did not investigate properly including the one I read.  The Wikipedia entry on Infomania mentions Dr. Wilson’s research as “an experimental study which documented the detrimental effects of information overload on problem solving ability” but did not cite his rebuttal … that is until a few minutes ago when I made my first ever Wikipedia edit to add Dr. Wilson’s note.

Regarding the article in the Sydney Morning Herald reprinted from the original in The Telegraph I have a few comments.  First, it was published 6 years after the original “research” by Dr. Wilson which hardly makes it “new news”.  Second, they clearly didn’t contact Dr. Wilson or investigate the claims which is disappointing since Dr. Wilson is clear about the media misrepresentation.  Third, none of the 25+ follow-up comments to the article on the Telegraph site mention the research issues (reinforcing my inclination to continue ignoring Comments on media web sites which are generally even less informed and more inflammatory than the articles).  Fourth, publishers that republish the articles of other papers SHOULD be able to rely on their integrity and accuracy but there are enough recurring problems that the trust is misplaced (but perhaps the financial benefit of copying without verifying is what really matters?).

All up, this event may be creating a Infomania Myth about the dumbing down effects of technological distraction and multi-tasking.  It has the ingredients for a Myth as it is something that many people want to believe. It chimes with the growing concern about the “always connected” society.

So here we have bad science reaching the same conclusion as good science regarding the adverse impact of multi-tasking.  I submit that ultimately this can hurt good science.  That’s because when bad science is outed it risks undermining trust in all science since most people are not equipped to differentiate good science.  Personally, the recent surge in outright distrust and disrespect for science bothers me greatly and increasing scepticism can’t be healthy in the long run.

To be clear, I don’t believe that this brings any disrepute to Dr. Wilson’s other research on many varied, interested and important topics.  It is more a lesson in how mixing media and science can get out of hand.

Unsatisfactory Conclusion

This follow-up article on multi-tasking has been an unpredictable journey into good and bad journalism, good and bad science and the far-from-perfect interface between these domains.  I have focussed on one example in which a small piece of quasi-science (most likely by a credible academic with good intentions) continues to echo a half decade later.  But in researching from this Psygrammer blog I have tracked ideas across the journalism / science boundary many times so I decided to write up my experiences.

I will continue to read general journalist coverage of science but with a continuing healthy scepticism.  As I write articles for this blog I will continue to track down the original scientific publications and provide links for readers.

Finally, I am increasingly concerned about what I feel is public discourse that is increasingly sceptical and disrespectful of science and scientists.  It is my firm believe that this trend is born out of both ignorance and deliberate misrepresentation with political motivations.  It is all the more disappointing because science continues to make the most extraordinary findings and contributions to our lives.

A Coda: Good Science on Multi-Tasking

When I started researching this article many weeks ago I took part in an online experiment called the Multi-Tasking Test.  Just recently it closed so, alas, you can’t take it but I can say it was an interesting structure and, not surprisingly, it asked me to turn off distractions like email and phones. The test was being conducted by various Australian institutions as part of the 2011 National Science Week.  They have published some Early Results which they appropriately note are “not scientifically verified“.  These early result focus primarily on general behaviors by demographic and we have to wait for findings on the performance impact of multi-tasking.

Still, the site has some good background information on multi-tasking and the current state of research.  The consistent finding is that switching between tasks reduces productivity (excepting subconscious tasks like walking, chewing gum and the like).

Our foe in human multi-tasking is the “post-refractory pause”.  That’s the delay involved when a human flips between tasks.  It’s the time required to refocus and switch attention to another task.  Where multi-tasking computers switch in micro-seconds humans take seconds to switch … only 1,000,000 times slower!  And as I discussed in the last blog on multi-tasking, the more complex the task the slower and more fallible the switch will be.

It seems to me that the difference in performance of a brain and computer is so fundamentally different it seems unreasonable to use the term “multi-tasking” to describe both.

What are the kinds of activity that distract our attention and reduce productivity: email, phone calls, IM, visits from colleagues, all manner of screen pop-ups etc.  The point is not that we shouldn’t be doing these things, but instead that it is important to manage time to provide opportunity for complete concentration as well as time to deal with communication, collaboration etc.

A Call for Engagement
It takes time to research and write articles for the Psygrammer blog.
I ask you, the reader, to take a minute for INPUT/OUTPUT by…

Be honest!

Andrew Hunt (psygrammer @ gmail dot com)


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