Multitasking, redux: New research finds ‘mindset switching’ impacts self-regulation

I’ve posted in the past on multitasking (see this update, for example). Generally, researchers have found that without special training (such as that received by airplane pilots or other specialists), true multitasking is difficult, and even if we believe we are successfully multitasking, the impact on our decision-making processes can be greater than we consciously understand.

In this new article by Hamilton et. al., published in the May 2011 issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the researchers examined not multitasking but rather mindset switching. A mindset is a mental state that is intended to achieve a certain goal. Thus, a mindset is a kind of forerunner of multitasking. Interestingly, just as multitasking drains our cognitive capacity, mindset switching appears to impact our capacity to self-regulate – that is, to alter our typical or ‘normal’ actions.

Hamilton et. al. write:

Our findings suggest that the benefits of switching mindsets to accommodate changing situational demands should be weighed against the drawbacks of mindset switching. The results from five experiments demonstrated that switching mindsets taxes limited self-regulatory resources… Repeatedly switching mindsets can impair executive functioning and cause self-regulatory failures on subsequent tasks.

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