The Mistake of Multitasking

There’s near unanimity in the literature on comprehension that critical thinking and accurate listening decline when we fragment our attention.

Fall’s quicker pace in the school and workplace offers the chance for a timely remember that some work habits are self-defeating.  In terms of attention to detail, perhaps nothing exacts a higher price than the belief that we can do several things at once.

As I’ve noted in this space before, the fundamental problem is that no one is good at multitasking.  We are simply not wired to fully deal with a variety of stimuli at once.  We may think otherwise. But how often do you hear someone else offering reminders that suggest our attention was elsewhere? “I told you that yesterday,” “You must have missed it,” or “You left some important things in that email” all serve as useful indicators.

In computer terms, we are better at serial processing than parallel processing. Technology writer Nicholas Carr explains why our brains cannot successfully process more than a few competing bits of information:

Why the Human Brain Can’t Multitask

Complete video at: Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, explains why the human brain struggles to process information that is presented “with the intensity and the quantity and the speed we find ourselves surrounded by today.”

There’s near unanimity in the literature on comprehension that critical thinking and listening declines when we fragment our attention. To put it simply, multitasking makes us just a little bit stupid. As researcher Clifford Nass famously noted, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy.”  Because “everything distracts them,” their intellectual performance on important tasks deteriorates.  Sometimes the person addicted to a digital stew of stimuli is the last to know that they have become functionally impaired.

It’s a common mistake to assume that being “busy” means being “fully engaged.”  We perform our busyness as a badge of honor.  But it’s closer to the truth to conclude that the more we structure lives to include distractions, the less we are able to get past this self-induced noise that complicates the completion of an important task.

Try a simple experiment.  Read your email or a series of text-messages while also listening to someone explain how to get to an address on the other side of town. No GPS device allowed. An active and full-time listener will probably process the directions correctly, or ask questions until they have the mental map they need.  The split-time listener is more likely to end up lost, often compounding their distraction by calling from from a moving car to get new directions.  Alas, that makes things even worse. Distracted driving is a form of multitasking that kills more pedestrians each year.

Look for models in those from all walks of life who still have the will to engage with one thing for an extended period.  These linear thinkers may be younger readers happily caught in the thrall of a writer or literary genre; newspaper consumers who will follow an investigative story across three pages of a broadsheet; or the curious who are in the thrall of a speaker or performer over a sustained period of time. To be sure, these individuals increasingly seem to be outliers. We now tend to notice an “unusual” passion for thirsty listening, ‘doing’ or reading.  These linear thinkers are now much more out of the norm, different from the rest of us swamped in a clutter of trivia.

The Divider

Nothing stands out more in the rhetoric of Donald Trump than his apparent pleasure in pitting Americans against each other. 

Classic studies of the American Presidency always include detailed histories of the office’s rhetorical style. In the most visible office in the world form usually follows function.  Presidents have always been called upon to find common values and beliefs that transcend regional and party differences.  In the words of analyst Mary Stuckey, the nation’s leader is the “interpreter in chief.”  His (and someday her) job includes finding the common threads of the American experience, then celebrating them in statements and appearances.  Others in Congress may function as professional partisans. But the Presidency has usually found its natural buoyancy when a leader tries to speak for the entire nation. Even past Presidents swimming in private resentments usually managed to celebrate the American experience. Most have not strayed from their constitutional oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  That includes not just honoring the independence of the press and judiciary, but celebrating the transcendent principles of tolerance and inclusion laid out in the expansive amendments to the Constitution.

Or so we thought.

Nothing stands out more in the Trump administration than his seeming delight it pitting Americans against each other.  To be sure, leaders have been intense partisans. We know from the record that this was true of F.D.R., John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.  Johnson is an interesting case. The former Senate Majority leader from Texas was an old ‘pol’ in the classic sense of the term. He learned about the uses of power from Richard Russell, an unreconstructed southerner. But he also understood how long-standing problems of race and poverty could be acted on in ways that would bring out the best in Americans. His televised address to Congress in 1965 supporting the Voting Rights Act remains an impressive demonstration of political courage.  In his slow drawl he reputed the racism of his mentor, embracing the promises enshrined in the nation’s founding documents.  Here are a few pieces of that address.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Speech

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

"What happened in Selma is part of a larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America.  It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.  Their cause must be or cause too.  Because it’s not just Negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.    

And we shall overcome."

It was an electric moment. Johnson spoke to our aspirations rather than our fears.  The act that passed eventually opened up local politics, leading to more registered voters and many more African American office holders.

It’s hard to fathom the horrible fact that some news organizations must supply their own security at Trump events.

Trump’s instincts are much more personal and strategic.  He seeks to celebrate himself more than the diverse corners of American life.  He feeds long standing resentments centered on race, vulnerable new arrivals, Muslims and any number of corporations and sports leagues. Most shockingly, he regularly campaigns against a sacred principle of public life: the value of a free and vigorous press.  He attacks the single feature of American political life that has been most admired and duplicated in emerging societies. His  vile and dangerous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people” is stunningly unamerican.  And from a more legalistic perspective, some verbal attacks at rallies approach the definition of felonious “incitement to violence.”  It’s hard to fathom the horrible reality that at Trump events some news organizations use their own security people to protect their journalists.

What motivates a person who publicly loathes so many?  If governing requires dealing with large segments of society that one finds distasteful, what rewards and motivations can exist?

One explanation from a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times doesn’t include a mental disorder, but a simpler habit of mind. He wrote that Trump has “a personality that privileges destructiveness and revels in the destruction of others and their ideals, whether they be refugees seeking asylum or carefully constructed policies that recognize the danger of Russian aggression.”  He notes that the President is not a “broken man,” but one “fully in tact” who simply gains pleasure from wreaking havoc on basic presuppositions grounding both conservatives and liberals raised in certain protocols and traditions of governing. He’s an anomaly in politics, not to mention the hospitality industry.

Trump will someday pass from the scene.  The more troubling problem is the mounting evidence that too many Americans seem to share his desire to destroy the values of liberal democracy.