The Perils of Multitasking: That Oscars Fiasco   1 comment

One of the dangers Kevin Burke and I have talked about with judges around the country is that of multitasking. As we have noted elsewhere, for more than 97% of us, task switching (what really happens when we try to multitask) has a cost in performance. Unfortunately, studies also show that most people think they actually are good at multitasking and more efficient as a result.

On the bench, this can have the negative effect of having a judge less aware of evidence being presented, objections being made, or subtle but important actions by courtroom participants. In a car, we are learning all too frequently that multitasking drivers can cause devastating consequences.

Now it appears that we can add handing out award envelopes at the Oscars to that list.

The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article yesterday telling what we know at this point. And it sure looks like multitasking played a key role that has caused embarrassment and potential repetitional damage to a big accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and one of its partners, Brian Cullinan.

Cullinan and another PricewaterhouseCoopers partner had what seems a fairly simple—and enjoyable—job for Oscars night: stand backstage and hand the award envelopes for the 24 major-category awards to the presenter right before that person heads on-stage. So, each time the presenter came up from the opposite side of the stage, Cullinan or his partner would have to put the unused envelope in their possession aside and make the next award’s envelope ready to go.

The multitasking problem appears to have happened between the next-to-last award to be announced—best actress in a leading role—and the final award for best picture.

After Emma Stone won the Best Actress Oscar, she came to Cullinan’s side of the stage. He then tweeted out a picture of her standing nearby with the comments, “Best Actress Emma Stone backstage! #PWC.” About three minutes later, Cullinan gave Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the wrong envelope as they headed on-stage.

The Journal reports that Cullinan doesn’t think his tweeting caused the error. But we know that most people don’t think their performance is degraded by multitasking. Like a judge on the bench—or all of us at one time or another—Cullinan had a single, very important task to focus on. We may never know for sure whether his decision to enjoy watching Emma Stone leave the stage, take a photo, and put out a tweet caused him to make an error that he now deeply regrets. But there’s a strong chance it did, and it’s a lesson we all should take in.

[Note: New details from behind the scenes have been published in Variety and the Washington Post, and they seem to add to the case that there were lots of distractions for Cullinan.]

Posted March 1, 2017 by Steve Leben in Uncategorized

One response to “The Perils of Multitasking: That Oscars Fiasco

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. For those of you interested in more research on multi-tasking here are some additional resources:
    Gopher, D., Armony, L. & Greenspan, Y. (2000). Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229.
    Mayr, U. & Kliegl, R. (2000). Task-set switching and long-term memory retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 1124-1140.
    Meuter, R. F. I. & Allport, A. (1999). Bilingual language switching in naming: Asymmetrical costs of language selection. Journal of Memory and Language, 40(1), 25-40.
    Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.
    Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997b). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 2. Accounts of psychological refractory-period phenomena. Psychological Review, 104, 749-791.
    Monsell, S., Azuma, R., Eimer, M., Le Pelley, M., & Strafford, S. (1998, July). Does a prepared task switch require an extra (control) process between stimulus onset and response selection? Poster presented at the 18th International Symposium on Attention and Performance, Windsor Great Park, United Kingdom.
    Monsell, S., Yeung, N., & Azuma, R. (2000). Reconfiguration of task-set: Is it easier to switch to the weaker task? Psychological Research, 63, 250-264.
    Monsell, S. & Driver, J., Eds. (2000). Control of cognitive processes: Attention and Performance XVIII. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
    Rogers, R. & Monsell, S. (1995). The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 207-231.
    Rubinstein, J., Evans, J. & Meyer, D. E. (1994). Task switching in patients with prefrontal cortex damage. Poster presented at the meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, San Francisco, CA, March, 1994. Abstract published in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1994, Vol. 6.
    Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.
    Yeung, N. & Monsell, S. (2003). Switching between tasks of unequal familiarity: The role of stimulus-attribute and response-set selection. Journal of Experimental Psychology-Human Perception and Performance, 29(2): 455-469.
    Kevin Burke

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: