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Does Multitasking Breed Political Ignorance?

New research presents evidence that people who utilize several media sources simultaneously aren't as politically knowledgeable as they believe.
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(Photo: alphaspirit/Shutterstock)

(Photo: alphaspirit/Shutterstock)

You're following the presidential election campaign, right? So do you prefer Hillary Clinton's or Bernie Sanders' plan for Wall Street reform? Do you think Marco Rubio's proposals on immigration are more fair, or workable, than those of Ted Cruz?

If you had trouble answering those questions, you can place some of the blame on the media's tendency to focus on who's ahead, who's behind, and who made the most outrageous statement over the past 24 hours. But new research suggests there just might be another culprit—one you're probably staring at right now.

It's that electronic device you have in your hand or on your lap, which you can't quite bring yourself to put down even while you're watching the news on television, or listening to NPR.

Trying to do two or more things at once is not only a bad idea for you personally, but dangerous for our democracy.

A research team led by Weina Ran of the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse reports a link between media multitasking and a relatively low level of political knowledge. Worse, the researchers found people who keep an eye on several information streams simultaneously aren't as well-informed as they think they are.

"Understanding political news is complex, and requires the allocation of sufficient cognitive attention to details," they write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. "Without such resources, individuals may fail to learn important information that could help them make informed decisions."

"Instead, they may end up with superficial understanding of politics, yet think that they know enough about it."

The participants, 508 Americans recruited online, were asked "how often they engaged in another media activity when reading, watching, or listening to political news." Using a scale of one (never) to five (very often), they indicated how often they sent and received text messages, listened to music, watched video, used a social networking site, or surfed the Web while simultaneously getting updated on politics.

All were then asked eight multiple-choice questions regarding political issues, including "The Islamic terrorist group known as ISIS controls territory in which of these countries?" and "What is the national unemployment rate?"

After controlling for such factors as education and interest in politics, "respondents who more frequently engaged in another media task when reading, watching, or listening to political news showed a lower level of factual understanding of political issues."

Moreover, "respondents who performed another media task when consuming political news frequently tended to perceive that they were politically knowledgeable, but had low level of factual knowledge compared to those who did so infrequently."

Besides the usual warning that correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, there is one major caveat to these findings: The online sample the researchers used "cannot be considered representative of the larger population," they concede. For one thing, it is "highly skewed toward young adults, and under-represents older age groups."

So replication with a more scientifically selected group will be necessary to confirm these results. That said, younger people are presumably closer to their cognitive peak, meaning that if multitasking negatively impacts their retention of knowledge, the effect could worsen if they continue this behavior as they age.

In any event, the study suggests trying to do two or more things at once is not only a bad idea for you personally, but dangerous for our democracy. If that finding startles you—well, were you giving this article your complete attention? Or were you skimming it while listening to music, and text messaging a friend?

Focus, people!


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.