May 5, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 15: The multitasking fallacy, confirmation bias, and strategic thinking

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. Attention residue (why multitasking is a fallacy)

“When you leave a task unfinished and move quickly onto something else, you leave part of your attention behind you, stuck to that project you were just working on. University of Minnesota professor Sophie Leroy, PhD, calls this ‘attention residue.’ She writes that 'people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.'

"In other words, the more thinly you slice your attention and time, the less focused you become. The less focused you become, the less progress you make. This is why you may feel like you’re not getting a lot done even though you’re ‘super busy.’” — From The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll

As you switch from task A to task B, your attention does not drop task A in favor of task B; a portion of it remains anchored to task A.

Further research by Gerald Weinberg indicates that switching between tasks consumes 20% of our attention. Our attention bandwidth decreases the more we change tasks because of the residue remaining in each. Here's how that would look in practice:

Focusing on a single task allows us to commit 100% of our energy towards it.

When switching between two tasks, we give each 40% of our attention, and 20% goes to attention residue.

Jumping between three tasks means only 20% of attention is available for each task, having now lost 40% to context switching.

Implicit in this research on attention residue is the question, 'what about multitasking?'

Studies show that multitasking in humans is a fallacy.

Multitasking is a computer term first used in 1966. Before multiprocessors, a computer could only handle a single action. And even after the advent of multiprocessors, each processor performs only a single task, making them serial processors, much like our minds.

Cognitively demanding tasks activate the prefrontal cortex, the core of the brain that orchestrates our thoughts and actions. Neuroscientists divide the prefrontal cortex into subregions, but there is no agreed-upon consensus on what these regions should be, nor their responsibilities. The generally accepted processes that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for are short-sighted behaviours with a goal in mind. This can include self-control, planning, decision-making and problem-solving. But because of the complexity of these operations, it's unlikely only a single region is responsible for them. The brain passes information and instructions through its network to achieve the desired result.

Studies suggest that multitasking causes the sides of the prefrontal cortex to split. When focusing on a single task, the two sides work in tandem. But by adding a second task, each side will work independently. The ease of juggling tasks depends on how engaged the prefrontal cortex is. Memorized actions like walking and talking place little strain on the prefrontal cortex, compared to, say, reading and driving.

When people claim they're multitasking, they aren't concentrating on two tasks at the same time, but rather switching between them.​

2. Are your desires being sold to you?

“The danger is not that we have a slot machine in our pockets. The danger is that we have a dream machine in our pockets. Smartphones project the desires of billions of people to us through social media, Google searches, and restaurant and hotel reviews. The neurological addictiveness of smartphones is real; but our addiction to the desires of others, which smartphones give us unfettered access to, is the metaphysical threat. Mimetic desire is the real engine of social media. Social media is social mediation—and it now brings nearly all of our models inside our personal world.” — From Wanting by Luke Burgis

In the first issue of Mind Macros we discussed René Girard's groundbreaking theory that our desires are not intrinsic, but are determined by those around us. Mimetic theory explains desire as a triangular relationship that begins with the subject, who mimics a model to obtain the desired object. Models exemplify what is worth wanting, motivating us to emulate them. The 'mediator' is synonymous with the term 'model' in the image below.

Mimetic Desire Triangle

In the days before social media, models were limited to our neighbors, colleagues at work, and celebrities that we saw in magazines and on TV.

Social media changed that. Today we are presented with millions more lives, many of which are portrayed in an idealized fashion to induce feelings of resentment, jealousy, and inadequacy. The platform's ability to influence how we spend our time and what desires, dreams and goals we choose to commit large portions of our lives towards is astounding.

Today, with millions of models only clicks away, the need for internal inquiry is greater than ever. To learn more, see the section below on strategic thinking.

Practical Advice

1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias causes us to focus on the information reinforcing our beliefs while ignoring or distorting disconfirming evidence. Part of this reasoning is our tendency to treat ideas like possessions, things we wish to retain at all costs.

In short, what we wish, we believe, and what we believe is what we choose to see.

F. Scott Fitzgerald provided a check against confirmation bias when he wrote:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Here are the results of a study documenting the bias:

“Indeed, even reading information that goes against your point of view can make you all the more convinced you are right. In one experiment, researchers selected people who either favored or opposed capital punishment and asked them to read two scholarly, well-documented articles on the emotionally charged issue of whether the death penalty deters violent crimes. One article concluded that it did; the other that it didn’t. If the readers were processing information rationally, they would at least realize that the issue is more complex than they had previously believed and would therefore move a bit closer to each other in their beliefs about capital punishment as a deterrence.

"But dissonance theory predicts that the readers would find a way to distort the two articles. They would find reasons to clasp the confirming article to their bosoms, hailing it as a highly competent piece of work. And they would be supercritical of the disconfirming article, finding minor flaws and magnifying them into major reasons why they need not be influenced by it. This is precisely what happened. Not only did each side discredit the other’s arguments; each side became even more committed to its own.

“If the new information is consonant with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful: "Just what I always said!" But if the new information is dissonant, then we consider it biased or foolish: "What a dumb argument!" So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief." From Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

2. Strategic thinking

“There is a fundamental distinction to be made between two kinds of thinking: figuring out what we would like to achieve, and working out how to achieve it. Put another way, there is a key difference between strategy on the one hand and execution on the other. Strategy is about determining our overall aims; execution comprises everything that follows once we’ve decided – the practical activities required to put our plans into action.

“It is natural to assume that we would spend a lot of time on strategy before we turned our attention to execution – however successful we might be in carrying out our plans, what really counts is having the right plans to work from in the first place. Our results can only be as good as the aims that first led to them. But there is a paradoxical aspect to the way our minds operate: as a general rule, we’re much better at execution than at strategy. We appear to have an innate energy for working through obstacles to our goals and an equally innate resistance to pausing to understand what these goals should rightly be. We seem to be as lackadaisical about strategy as we are assiduous about execution.

“We see the outcome of this bias across many areas. We concentrate more on making money than on figuring out how to spend it optimally. We put a lot more effort into becoming ‘successful’ than into assessing how dominant notions of success could make us content.” — From How to Think More Effectively by The School of Life

Mimetic desire describes how we adopt the desires of those around us, both physically and digitally. This process leads us to adopt a goal, desire, or idea without first assessing its validity in our lives. Without first conducting an internal inquiry, we tend to get caught up in the execution. Before focusing on a goal, it could be helpful to answer some guiding questions. How to Think More Effectively suggests a handful:

What are we ultimately trying to do here?

What would best serve our happiness?

How is this aligned with real value?

Amos Tversky once said:

“The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

We could waste years pursuing meaningless goals, dead-end careers and failing relationships. Alternatively, we could set aside two hours to contemplate these pursuits and develop a plan that could save years of lost time. The purpose of planning is to avoid climbing a ladder, only to realize years later that it was against the wrong wall.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Adam Driver on the power of self-expression:

“Self expression is just as valuable tool as a rifle on your shoulder.”

2. Lao Tzu on knowledge being the pursuit of more, while wisdom is the removal of false notions:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

Share this with the right people!

If you've ever found anything here to be interesting or valuable- it would be a big help to get this to reach the right people and share it with someone that you think will appreciate it:

Thanks for joining our newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong.

Latest newsletters

Hey, I'm Matthew 👋

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Thanks for joining our newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong.