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Regular media multitaskers likely to use irrelevant information when forming impressions of others

People who often use several different media devices, such as tablet, smartphone, or TV, at the same time (media multitasking) are more likely to use irrelevant information from their environment when forming impressions of people they don’t know, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Psychology.

Researchers from Rice University, University of Colorado Boulder, Dartmouth College, and the Ohio State University, USA found that participants who reported frequently using multiple devices at the same time were more likely to attribute low conscientiousness to an unknown person in a video, if the participants were in a messy room while watching the video. This was irrespective of whether the room the person in the video was in was messy or tidy. Students who did not report high levels of media multitasking did not show this behaviour.

Dr. Richard Lopez, the corresponding author said: “The results suggest that high media multitaskers may, unknowingly, include irrelevant information from their environment – in this case the room they were in while watching the video – when they form impressions of others, rather than potentially more relevant information provided by the other person’s environment.”

Media multitasking may thus characterize individuals who are more likely to be influenced by incidental environmental cues, which may impact subsequent perception and judgements of core personality traits, such as conscientiousness, in others.

The authors randomly assigned 96 undergraduate students to watch a video clip showing an individual being interviewed in their dorm room. The set-up was based on previous research which showed that environmental cues in a living space provide information (relevant cues) by which the person who lives there is evaluated by others.

The students who participated in the test were directed to either a neat or messy room to watch the video (irrelevant cues). The students were then asked to rate the conscientiousness of the interviewee. Regular media multitasking was assessed via a questionnaire provided after the test.

Lopez also said: “This study represents an important first step in finding links between media multitasking and how people form impressions of others. While we found that media multitasking is associated with a different way of perceiving the surrounding environment and that this may impact person perception, further research is needed to determine whether high media multitaskers incorporate environmental cues differently in other areas than person perception.”

The authors caution that since they did not manipulate participants’ media multitasking, a causal link between frequent media multitasking and person perception thus cannot be established. Also, because the authors did not track the participants’ attention while they were watching the video, it is not possible to make strong claims about how much attention the participant gave to the video (relevant cue) and the room around them (irrelevant cue).



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Notes to editor:

1. Research article:

Media multitasking is associated with altered processing of incidental, irrelevant cues during person perception.

Lopez et al. BMC Psychology 2018.

DOI: 10.1186/s40359-018-0256-x

The article ia available at the journal website.

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