Think you can multi-task? You can’t, say researchers

People who think they can multitask by concentrating on their television as well as their PC are fooling themselves, new research finds.

Boston College researchers placed people in a room containing a television and a computer and gave them a half hour to use either device. And they found that, on average, the subjects switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer a staggering 120 times in 27.5 minutes – nearly once every 14 seconds.

“We thought it was going to be high, but the frequency of switching and amount of distraction going on was really shocking,” says Adam Brasel, an associate professor of marketing.

Even the subjects themselves didn’t realize what was going on. On average, they beleived they might have looked back and forth between the two devices about 15 times per half hour – less than a tentrh of the true figure. And even if quick glances of less than 1.5 seconds were removed from the equation, people were still switching over 70 times per half hour.

“What we found is that when people try to pay attention to multiple media simultaneously they are switching back and forth at an astounding rate,” says Brasel. “We’re not even aware of what we are doing when in multi-media environments.”

Study participants who thought they were only looking at the computer during TV commercials, or said they thought they were watching TV while web pages were loading, were actually behaving very differently.

In the battle between the PC and the TV, the computer came out ahead, drawing the attention of the study participants 68.4 percent of the time. But neither device held people’s attention for very long. The median length of gaze lasted less than two seconds for television and less than six seconds for the computer, the researchers found.

And they point out that the battle was only a two-way one: in real life, they say, there’s often a mobile phone competing for our attention as well.