Stanford Professor Who Sounded Alert On Multitasking Has Died

Nov 7, 2013
Originally published on November 7, 2013 6:51 pm

Clifford Nass, the Stanford University sociologist who helped pioneer studies that undermined ideas about multitasking, has died at age 55. The man who dedicated his career to thinking about how humans live in a digital age died after taking part in a hike near Lake Tahoe Saturday.

At Stanford, Nass was "a larger than life character," his colleague professor Byron Reeves tells NPR's All Things Considered. Reeves says Nass "was just incredibly enthusiastic about his work, about students."

As for Nass' legacy, Reeves says his colleague worked to trace how technology has moved "from tools to social actors," in which everything from robots and computer-laden cars can now use interactive software to present visual cues.

"These were essentially social responses," Reeves says. "And humans were built for those kinds of social responses, and to recognize that kind of social interaction and to participate... and they did."

A graduate of Princeton University with degrees in mathematics and sociology, Nass worked as a computer scientist at Intel Corp. before beginning his work at Stanford, according to the Stanford Report. The school paper adds, "He was also a professional magician."

Nass's work on multitasking was just one part of how he examined the way people interact with technology. He also wrote books about voice recognition software, and the ways people think about computers and television.

But it was his research — and his skepticism — about multitasking that drew the most notice. And Nass didn't have to look far for test subjects.

"The top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they're using media," he told NPR's Science Friday this past May. "So when they're writing a paper, they're also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, et cetera. And that's something that just couldn't happen in previous generations even if we wanted it to."

To anyone who claims they're able to multitask, to concentrate on multiple things at once while still thinking creatively and using their memory, Nass had a ready response.

"They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking," he told Science Friday's Ira Flatow, citing a raft of scientific research. In Nass's view, people who say they're good at multitasking because they do it all the time are like smokers who say they've always smoked — so it can't be bad form them.

"People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted," Nass said. "They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even - they're even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they're actually worse at it. So they're pretty much mental wrecks."

Nass also warned that the mental strain of taking in an ever-increasing load of information through electronic media hasn't been fully realized.

"Companies now create policies that force their employees to multitask," he said, according to the Stanford Report. "It's an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) problem. It's not safe for people's brains."

Another of Nass' experiments revolved around how people see virtual versions of themselves — particularly when given the option of giving themselves feedback. Here's how he explained the results of a study during a 2010 appearance on NPR:

"We've done studies, for example, in which... you take a test on a computer and the feedback is either given not only by your own voice but your own face, saying you did a good job or you did a bad job, or someone else has.

"And people not only thought they did better when they got feedback from their own voice, they thought their own face and voice was more intelligent, more likable, and in fact they remembered more of the positive and fewer of the negative comments."

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With all this talk of Twitter and its IPO, we want to take a few moments now to remember a man who warned against spending too much time using social media.


CLIFFORD NASS: We've got 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.

CORNISH: That's Clifford Nass. He was a trained sociologist and a Stanford University professor who studied the effects of multitasking on the human brain. Nass died on Saturday at the age of 55. He was alarmed by how difficult it was for many of his students to process complex ideas. One reason, he argued, they were chronic media users and multitaskers.


NASS: First of all, they find it very difficult to filter out irrelevant information. Second, they have serious problems with managing working memory. And finally, and perhaps most surprising, they're even bad at multitasking.

CORNISH: Professor Byron Reeves, of Stanford University, joins us to talk about his colleague and friend Clifford Nass. Professor, welcome to the program.

BYRON REEVES: Oh, thank you.

CORNISH: And first, I want to offer our condolences. Obviously, Professor Nass was loved on campus.

REEVES: Yes. He was certainly a big part of a lot of different programs here.

CORNISH: We heard some of his humor, in those clips earlier. Can you tell us more about what he was like?

REEVES: Larger-than-life character. He was just incredibly enthusiastic about his work and - just a giant hole here.

CORNISH: Tell us how he came to this area of study - multitasking - and also, the study of - sort of how people relate to their devices.

REEVES: Yeah. Early on, we spent a lot of time thinking about how people relate socially to technology - to computers, to television images, and he was very much responsible for bringing about this notion that social responses to these technologies were very much how humans were built to respond. So these were not just tools. They were really social relationships. There were voices and pictures and faces. So that started it all. And of course, those relationships weren't social, and I think that led Cliff to his more recent comments on what it means to spend so much time thinking you're relating socially but, of course, that's not really the case.

CORNISH: He also talked about this idea of chronic use of social media. He said in 2009 - PBS interview: "We could essentially be undermining the thinking ability of our society. We could essentially be dumbing down the world." What did he mean by that?

REEVES: Well, we've run out of hours in the day, to pack more media time. So Cliff noticed that what really have to do is overlay media experiences. We like them all, so we overlay them. And we're trying to do two or three - or more - things at once. So he was very concerned recently that that overlaying, that multitasking, was causing us to do less well at any given thing - and especially to relating to other humans.

CORNISH: Now, what was the response to his work? I mean, obviously, you know, you're located in the heart of Silicon Valley where, arguably, the multitasking revolution began. I mean, did his work get back to the tech industry? And did it affect the way that they did business?

REEVES: Well, I'm not sure that the influence yet has been seen in trying to dampen down the multitasking but certainly, there are other people talking about it. That conversation is very much alive. It's alive on campus. You know, he - Cliff had some exercises that he would have the dorm folks - kids do, when he was in the dorm, of actually spending time face-to-face asking each other questions; and it proved to be a little difficult. So he was very interested in moving that - those social discoveries into thinking about how to mitigate some of the negative influences of the multitasking.

CORNISH: That's Byron Reeves, talking about his fellow Stanford professor Clifford Nass. Nass died Saturday at the end of a hike. He was just 55. Byron Reeves, thank you much for speaking with us.

REEVES: You're welcome.



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