Multitasking among tasks that share a goal: action identification theory

Right from the start of today’s Media Multitasking Workshop1,  it’s clear that one big issue is just what people are talking about when they talk about multitasking. In this post, I want to highlight the relationship between defining different kinds of multitasking and people’s representations of the hierarchical structure of action.

It is helpful to start with a contrast between two kinds of cases.

Distributing attention towards a single goal

In the first, there is a single task or goal that involves dividing one’s attention, with the targets of attention somehow related, but of course somewhat independent. Patricia Greenfield used Pac-Man as an example: each of the ghosts must be attended to (in addition to Pac-Man himself), and each is moving independently, but each is related to the same larger goal.

Distributing attention among different goals

In the second kind of case, there are two completely unrelated tasks that divide attention, as in playing a game (e.g., solitaire) while also attending to a speech (e.g., in person, on TV). Anthony Wagner noted that in Greenfield’s listing of the benefits and costs of media multitasking, most of the listed benefits applied to the former case, while the costs she listed applied to the later. So keeping these different senses of multitasking straight is important.

Complications

But the conclusion should not be to think that this is a clear and stable distinction that slices multitasking phenomena in just the right way. Consider one ways of putting this distinction: the primary and secondary task can either be directed at the same goal or directed at different goals (or tasks). Let’s dig into this a bit more.2

Byron Reeves pointed out that sometimes “the IMing is about the game.” So we could distinguish whether the goal of the IMing is the same as the goal of the in-game task(s). But this making this kind of distinction requires identity conditions for goals or tasks that enable this distinction. As Ulrich Mayr commented, goals can be at many different levels, so in order to use goal identity as the criterion, one has to select a level in the hierarchy of goals.

Action identities and multitasking

We can think about this hierarchy of goals as the network of identities for an action that are connected with the “by” relation: one does one thing by doing (several) other things. If these goals are the goals of the person as they represent them, then this is the established approach taken by action identification theory (Vallacher & Wegner, 1987) — and this could be valuable lens for thinking about this. Action identification theory claims that people can report an action identity for what they are doing, and that this identity is the “prepotent identity”. This prepotent identity is generally the highest level identity under which the action is maintainable. This means that the prepotent identity is at least somewhat problematic if used to make this distinction between these two types of multitasking because then the distinction would be dependent on, e.g., how automatic or functionally transparent the behaviors involved are.

For example, if I am driving a car and everything is going well, I may represent the action as “seeing my friend Dave”. I may also represent my simultaneous, coordinating phone call with Dave under this same identity. But if driving becomes more difficult, then my prepotent identity will decrease in level in order to maintain the action. Then these two tasks would not share the prepotent action identity.

Prepotent action identities (i.e. the goal of the behavior as represented by the person in the moment) do not work to make this distinction for all uses. But I think that it actually does help makes some good distinctions about the experience of multitasking, especially if we examine change in action identities over time.

To return to case of media multitasking, consider the headline ticker on 24-hour news television. The headline ticker can be more or less related to what the talking heads are going on about. This could be evaluated as a semantic, topical relationship. But considered as a relationship of goals — and thus action identities — we can see that perhaps sometimes the goals coincide even when the content is quite different. For example, my goal may simply to be “get the latest news”, and I may be able to actually maintain this action — consuming both the headline ticker and the talking heads’ statements — under this high level identity. This is an importantly different case then if I don’t actually maintain the action at the level, but instead must descend to — and switch between — two (or more) lower level identities that are associated the two streams of content.

References

Vallacher, R. R., & Wegner, D. M. (1987). What do people think they’re doing? Action identification and human behavior. Psychological Review, 94(1), 3-15. 

  1. The full name is the “Seminar on the impacts of media multitasking on children’s learning and development”. []
  2. As I was writing this, the topic re-emerged in the workshop discussion. I made some comments, but I think I may not have made myself clear to everyone. Hopefully this post is a bit of an improvement. []

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