Home » Are You Multitasking Your Life Away? Cliff Nass at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Are You Multitasking Your Life Away? Cliff Nass at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Cliff Nass


Personal life is hard. When I was 7 years old, there was a girl I really liked, but I didn’t know how to tell her. I decided I would learn from a 10-year-old who seemed unusually swave. He went up to the girl’s porch and drew this: “I love you.” He knocked on the girl’s door, pointed and said, “I did this for you.” And the girl was thoroughly entranced. I decided to follow the same idea, but wanted to show that I mastered words as well as art.

So I drew this, “I love you,” a female sheep. I knocked on the girl’s door, she came out and I said, “I did this for you.” She screamed and ran back into the house. It turned out that she had thought I had sacrificed the eyes and the heart of a sheep to prove my devotion. The moral was obvious: 10-year-olds aren’t great emotional experts.

You could draw the conclusions, too, I suppose. Well, in the 21st century, we have a lot easier ways to learn about emotion, in fact, we are blessed with one of the greatest experts in social and emotional intelligence, Barney the Dinosaur. For those of you who don’t recognize him, Barney was the character, incredibly popular on children’s television for many years. And as famous as he was, even more famous, was his theme song which started, “I love you, you love me.” I’m sure it’s familiar to many of you.

I decided it’d be important to deconstruct that song, to understand exactly what lessons Barney could teach us about social and emotional life. So, let’s start, and forgive the quality of my singing (Sings) I love you. No, wait a minute! Here is someone who’s never met you, will never meet you and is arguably fictional, yet he can claim his deep and abiding love for you.

But on the other hand, religious leaders have been doing that for a long time, so maybe it’s not so troubling. Right, let’s keep going (Sings) I love you, you love me. Wait! Someone who has never seen you can claim to understand your deepest and most profound feelings, or are they that deep and profound if someone can know them without knowing you, right? (Sings) I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family. Stop!

There’s lots of questions about the changing American family, but whatever it is supposed to look like, it probably didn’t include a purple dinosaur. And even more so, it says that family can be people we never actually have to interact with, OK? (Sings) I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you Stop! I always thought the nice things about hugs and kisses was the physicality, you actually touch someone, but now Barney tells us the mere indication, the virtual is as good as the real. This isn’t just symbolism, that’s all there is. (Sings) I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me, won’t you say you love me too. Stop!

Barney is teaching us that we can express our deepest feelings without ever worrying whether the other person hears it. In fact, we should throw our feelings out into the world, and whoever hears some, is just fine, OK? The second verse is even more frightening, starts the same (Sings) I love you, you love me and in a line only Mark Zuckerberg would write (Sings) We’re friends as friends should be. Stop!

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Now, of all the models of friendship you imagined, you probably didn’t include one that involves never interacting, or seeing, or talking with the person who is your friend. Who are the best friends? Facebook friends OK, so this is the world of emotion. So we now have to ask the question: “If 10-year-olds won’t be experts, if Barney is not an expert, how will we learn about emotion?” Now, you may think that’s a misguided question because maybe the idea emotional life is hard, really isn’t true. After all, we can all tell that this guy is very happy, even if you ever looked like that, you’d need plastic surgery, he still seems quite content.

Conversely, this guy is really mad, the eyebrows and the mouth tell the whole story. So, clearly, we can recognize emotions. In fact, we don’t even need faces to indicate emotion, we can tell that the guy on the left is happier and more excited than the person on the right, who is clearly sad and subdued. And in fact, the brain is devoted, in fact, structurally obsessed with emotion. We have parts of the brain devoted to positive emotions, to negative emotions, to detecting, producing, managing emotion in faces, in voices, in words, in body postures, in all sorts of other things.

So, really our brains are really good at emotion, all we have to do, is to pay attention, and to think about what we see. Well, paying attention to other people was not really a challenge to most of human history. We’ve now confronted a revolution which starts in the early and middle stages of the Industrial Revolution, which is partial oh, I’m sorry. So, emotional intelligence requires attention. But, as I mentioned, to achieve that attention we have to look. And the challenge to that is something called Partial Media Displacement. Very simply, that’s a theory that says: “Every time a new technology or service appears, the first thing that happens is pretty obvious. It steals time from other information services.” Movies stole time from books, radio stole time from movies, television stole time from radio, internet stole time from television, et cetera.

But media are seductive, so after they steal time from other information activities, they also steal time from non-media activities. So our day planner get’s more and more filled with media. But what happens when we run out of non-media time to steal from? At that moment, there was an inflection point in history.

One thing that could be done was to say: “OK, no more time to steal from non-media, from now on we’re going to replace media one-on-one.” But that isn’t what happened. Instead, we did whatever we do when we have too many things to do, and too little time to do it: we started to double-book media. But the rate of media, new media, gradually accelerated, and then increasingly accelerated. So what do we do then? Did we give up? No. We triple- and quadruple-book media.

So, now we find that the top 25% of Stanford media students, media users, for example, use four or more media at one time whenever they are using media. That means whenever they are writing a paper, they are also listening to music, using Facebook, watching YouTube, texting, et cetera. So, there’s been a tremendous change in the nature of paying attention with media. What are the consequences of those changes? Well, it turns out that chronic media users pay a strong cognitive price.

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First of all, they find it very difficult to filter out irrelevant information. Second, they have serious problems with managing working memory. They’re also suckers for relevancy: give them something irrelevant, they cannot help but look at it. And finally, and perhaps most surprising, they’re even bad at multitasking. They can’t actually manage doing multiple things at one time, even though they do it all the time.

Now, what’s going on here? Is this merely an accident, is this merely some random change? No, it’s actually changing the way the human brain works. So, this is the brain scan, a functional magnetic resonance imaging of high and low multi-taskers when asked to do an irrelevant task. The little white dot you see – it’s on your right, but it’s a left prefrontal cortex – is the extra brainpower used by low multi-taskers, people who don’t multitask, when asked to do an irrelevant task. These huge swathes of yellow you see, are the extra mental activity used by high multitaskers during something utterly irrelevant to the task at hand. Now, there’s a cognitive price for that.

Namely, that we have only one storehouse of brain activation. So, if you’re spending more than that mental energy on irrelevant tasks, you are not focusing on the relevant. This brain activity suggests that it’s not only true of media; what we think is happening is that people are generating habits of mind that are a distraction, and it makes those interactions with other people an invitation to distraction as well. So, here we have people having a meal together here, we have people enjoying the beach, and here we have the canonical play date. Now, this type of activity, people sitting side by side doing unrelated things right next to each other, is described by psychologists as parallel play.

It’s a healthy developmental step if you are two to four years old. However, by the time you are 6 or 7, you’re supposed to learn to play together and to interact, and that playing together among elementary, junior high, and high school, and college, and adults, helps us to learn the deeper and more profound emotional rule. Now, as we’re playing together, we are looking at each other, we are learning from each other, and because we share an environment, we can understand appropriate emotional responses. But if you’re doing this, then if anyone of these four people manifests emotion, we can’t learn anything because they are each in their own virtual world. You might argue that’s so 20th century.

In the 21st century, we’ve solved the way around all this and that it textual communication and social media Let’s see what happens there Well, the first thing to know is that text is intrinsically emotionless The human brain has not evolved to detect emotion from text, and to manifest emotion richly is going to take skill, that’s why we have writers, for example We don’t get that with media.

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A second problem with social media is that it works too slowly. The human face is remarkably mobile. In fact, it can change emotions on the order of a tenth of a second. If you are not paying attention, you’re not going to notice that. And if you are not thinking hard, you’re not going to know what to do.

And, if you see a new emotion, you can’t say to the person: “I see an emotion, let me go off, think about what to do, and come back to you.” With text, we can be lazy in our emotional life, leading to an emotional atrophy. Another problem with social worlds is that they have become the happiest places on earth. Facebook is filled with smiling and happy people, positive comments get much more likes than negative comments, and there are strong norms against saying too many negative things. But negative things are the really hard ones, the really important ones to learn.

As Tolstoy said: “All happy families are alike. And all happy emotions are alike. But each unhappy family is unhappy in a different way. And each unhappy emotion is unique and complex.” If we don’t get practice doing that, we are not going to learn to have healthy emotional lives.

Do we see this playing out? So, the answer is yes, we did a study of 3,400 8-12-year-old girls, and for the first time we looked at media use in general, we looked at multitasking, using multiple media at the time, we looked at face-to-face communication, and we also looked at social and emotional development. The results were sobering. Kids who were heavy multi-taskers, showed a remarkable number of deficits.

First of all, they did use media when face-to-face, they did distract themselves when with other kids, they felt less normal about themselves, they had more friends who their parents thought were bad influences, and they had less sleep which is associated with a number of social, emotional, as well as cognitive deficits. Importantly, online media use showed the exact same effects.

Was there anything that helped kids develop emotionally? The answer was yes. Face-to-face communication is absolutely magical. Kids who are heavy face-to-face interactants, focused on the other person, not other media, they showed greater social success, felt more normal about themselves, had fewer friends as bad influences, and got more sleep. Now, you might argue: “Well look, there are face-to-face kids, there are online kids, kids who are online are retreating from social life.” But that’s just not the case.

It turns out there is no relationship between the amount of face-to-face time and the amount of online time. Kids who are heavy face-to-face users and heavy online users did perfectly fine. Conversely, kids who are social isolates, who don’t use a lot face-to-face or online media do poorly. Kids who have high face-to-face interactions, but don’t go online, do fine and kids who are heavy online, but don’t do face-to-face, are hoped for savior, unfortunately, do badly. So, the moral of the story here is really clear.

We have to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back a saying we used to hear all the time and now never hear: look at me when I talk to you. Thank you.