The Multitasking Myth

14 Sep

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

Busy business people working hard on his desk in office with a lot of paper work, Business conceptual on hard working.

Can women multitask better than men? Before you read any further, stop for a moment and consider that question: What do you really think?
It probably won’t surprise you that this is a question social scientists have given plenty of attention. Nor may it surprise you that their answers point both ways.
The argument against is perhaps the most interesting. This tells us that women are not better at multitasking than men because no-one really multitasks. The research evidence here is very clear, we can only ever give our full attention to one task at once.

When we think we’re multitasking, what we are really doing is rapidly shifting our attention from one task to another. This shuffling of tasks often makes us think that we are simultaneously attending to them but that is just an illusion. When we shuffle between tasks our performance on all of them decreases, and the likelihood of making mistakes goes up. This is why driving and talking on your phone (with or without a hands-free kit) is a bad idea.

What this shows is that we have our metaphors about attention all wrong. It’s common to hear attention referred to as a kind of internet ‘bandwidth’ but in reality attention is much more like a phone line. If you want to take an incoming call, you first have to put the current caller on hold. Attention is both finite and sequential.

The reason why some people think women are able to multitask successfully is that there is some evidence that women can switch between tasks faster than men. This comes from a series of experiments that showed mixing up a number of tasks slowed down men’s performance more than women’s. Some people believe this demonstrates that women are better at what is known as ‘thin slicing’ than men. That is, the ability to make very quick decisions drawn from small amounts of information.

So the view from the social scientists seems to be that while women can’t really multitask better than men, they are better at the tricks our brains play to provide the illusion that we can.
Yet if we shift our attention from psychology to sociology, the social science here gets even more interesting. Sociologists are less interested in what the experiments tell us about men and women and multitasking and more interested in what those things say about the world we live in. This perspective raises important questions like ‘why have we made a fetish of multitasking?’ and ‘why do we care if women or men are better at it?’

The first of those is about the general appeal of multitasking and the answer seems obvious. In a world where there are increasingly blurred lines between work and home, and where technology provides the ability to combine tasks in new ways, multitasking seems a virtuous way to be more productive. In this view, multitasking is seen as a way to respond to an increasingly time-poor world.

At the same time, we now know that our brains crave novelty. They have evolved to seek it out, and they reward us when we find it. Novelty is correlated with the activation of the dopamine system in the brain. This provides a powerful reward mechanism for doing the things evolution has wired us all to do. So while the multitasking myth explains why you shouldn’t mix driving and talking on your phone, your brain’s craving for novelty explains why you want to.

The marriage of technology and the reconfiguring of work explains why we have made multitasking a virtue. But it also explains why it’s convenient to believe that women can do it better than men. Over the last 50 years or so we have seen a radical change in the working lives of women. Their participation in paid work has increased significantly, and with it a ‘double burden’ of juggling work and home-life. Women who were raised to believe they could do anything, found themselves in a world where they were asked to do everything. In this world, is it any surprise that we came to believe that women are natural multitaskers and much better at it than men?

As any social scientist will tell you, social norms are cultural products. What we see as ‘common sense’ reveals a great deal about the world we live in. In this regard, our belief in multitasking tells us much more about who we are than we might like to admit. But is this ability to get behind those taken-for-granted assumptions that makes the social sciences so valuable to all of us. Because, as George Orwell noted, to see what’s in front of our noses needs a constant struggle.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Stakeholder Engagement and Community Relations

6 Sep

Written by Bruce Fraser, FPRINZ, Fraser Consultants


PR professionals do loads of different stuff in their organisations and for their clients but one of the most important is to act as the eyes and ears. We scan media channels, listen to what’s being said, talk with frontline staff and undertake research so that we can better understand the needs of our customers, suppliers, neighbours, communities, agencies and others we interact with.

Armed with that information and proudly wearing our PR hats, we then represent those views within our organisations to help inform good decision making. We advocate for those stakeholders and provide sound intelligence for the decision makers to consider all aspects of an issue before planning future actions.

Our job then is to support organisational goals with great PR planning and implementation to develop strong relationships with those various groups who affect our businesses or are affected by our businesses. The profession of Public Relations revolves around building sound relationships with those sectors that matter to us through mutual understanding and excellent communications.

PRINZ has a Stakeholder Engagement and Community Relations course planned for Tauranga on 27 September that will look in more depth at how we can be better at identifying and engaging with groups and planning ways for our organisations to be great corporate citizens. If you are interested in attending, register here.

Image credit: Istock

Virtually connected: A personal experience of an international PR team

5 Sep

Catherine Mules - AUT PRINZ Ambassador

AUT’s Postgraduate PRINZ Student Ambassador Catherine Mules (third from right) in Abu Dhabi for the commencement of her university project, GlobCom2016

The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Catherine Mules, PRINZ Student Ambassador at Auckland University of Technology.

Here’s something we can all agree on: virtual teamwork to achieve business objectives is no longer exceptional – it is a crucial skill. I had some moments of insight into this during a university project earlier this year where I collaborated virtually to develop and pitch a global public relations campaign. The aim of this project was to plan a campaign to spread awareness about the plight of dugongs – an endangered marine mammal. The challenge was to develop the campaign virtually. I am sharing my reflections particularly with regards to the communication breakdowns experienced by our virtual team.

Many PR Professionals will be familiar with Tuckman’s stages of group development, forming, storming, norming and performing. Although Tuckman’s stages were developed in relation to face-to-face teams they are still applicable when it comes to virtual teams.

One of the key elements of the virtual team experience was leadership and allocation of roles and responsibilities. We were randomly allocated into our international teams and each one was huge with 36 members per team. Individual roles were assigned within one week via self-nomination and group voting. Unfortunately, decisions were based on little knowledge about each other because we did not have immediate access to each other’s resumes. It turned out our elected team leader had limited capabilities, experience or track record in leading, despite her initial confidence. It wasn’t long before elements of storming began to emerge.

Effective leadership requires proactive management of any conflict. Almost immediately there were complaints and mutterings behind our leader’s back, particularly about lack of task structure, inequalities of contribution and poor project direction. It was clear that her lack of leadership skills was doing little to reduce the risk of slacking. This was especially obvious in the online environment where those individuals who felt excluded from the group just disappeared off the radar.

The experience showed me that the core elements of good leadership and group interaction are the same in a virtual environment as in the face-to-face world. I had hesitated to put my name forward for a leadership role because I assumed that others had more expertise than me. I accepted the leader’s request to step-in and assist her as deputy leader a few weeks into the project. Together we developed a clear project timeline and established regular formal and informal meetings. I learnt that a primary responsibility of a good leader is to first lead yourself. As the project progressed I received positive feedback from my teammates complimenting my proactive and inclusive leadership style.

Virtual technology gave me a better ability to step back and be objective about the project because of the separation from the immediacy of my teammates, however, it challenged my ability to be responsive to their emotional needs and concerns. I found it difficult online to tune into the subtleties of the emotional needs of others as my teammates weren’t there in the office beside me or within walking distance down the corridor; I couldn’t lean over with a quick question and couldn’t watch to see how they responded to a suggestion I had made. When we eventually came together in person to present our PR proposal most of our team had the ‘task’ and ‘relationship’ cohesion we had initially struggled with online.

In this project I also found it difficult to bond informally which is needed for a cohesive team. To help overcome this we sought to increase personal and social interaction by integrating social and audio-visual media (Facebook and Google Hangouts) into the virtual team experience. We developed mutually agreed norms to provide shared rules and a timeline that we could call on to improve interaction. One useful norm was for all team members to RSVP to meetings and let team members know at least two days in advance if a task deadline could not be met. Another norm we agreed on was that we needed to treat each other with courtesy and respect. On the whole this norm was followed once we had agreed to it.

Our team was culturally diverse with team members from Germany, Malaysia, America, Sweden, South Africa and many other countries. Many of our communication problems seemed to arise as a result of cultural differences, particularly the difference between individualistic and collectivist communication patterns. For example, our Arab teammates were accustomed to a highly contextually orientated culture where it is what one doesn’t say that counts most and indirectness is favoured. This is in contrast to others in the team such as myself who are accustomed to explicit verbal messages. An issue arose between the German leader and our Arab teammates because the German leader felt the Arab team members “did not deliver on what they promised” whereas the Arab team members confided in me that they found her abrupt and blunt and closed to beliefs that were different to her own.

It turned out the personal differences and clashes in cultural perspectives we had experienced initially were constructive to the development of our project.  Once we had developed structure and norms the variety of communication patterns gave us an awareness of what was needed to perform responsively and effectively appeal to an international audience.

At a more functional level, different time-zones caused difficulties in scheduling meetings and working efficiently. Some team members had limited internet access, others were less flexible in their availability. Ongoing requirements for meetings in the early hours of the morning and lack of input from other team members often left me exhausted.  Although notifications and availability status can be turned on and off on most virtual technologies, scheduled times of guaranteed responsiveness is still important. In the reality of an international virtual team, this was hard to come by.

The choice of virtual technologies will vary depending on the goals of the project. Check out recommendations from others online and don’t be afraid to experiment.  The online technology we used was Slack – one that is popular for its versatile capabilities.

For those of you yet to experience the virtual team dynamic, my advice is much the same as in any team: don’t be afraid to put your hand up, be enthusiastic, be open to change, and always consider how your unique abilities can best help the team. I learnt that positivity pays – knowing how to marshal your positive side despite external negativity or setbacks will help you keep your eyes on the goal and stay focused. Planning and identifying the right person for the job is still essential, even when time isn’t on your side.

Thanks to AUT for generously funding GlobCom, to my course leader Averill Gordon, and to the wonderful Team 7. The final stage in Tuckman’s stages of team process is performance – and we got there in the end!

Pushing a domino.

29 Aug


The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Phubeth Udomsilp, PRINZ Student Ambassador at Unitec Institute of Technology.

It was September 2015. I remember arriving at the Glengarry Victoria Park Wine Room for a PRINZ student event. Arriving early, I joined my friends from Unitec outside the premises. As a second year student, it was refreshing to see my peers looking nice and tidy for the event. The vibe felt different from University, but you could feel the excitement in the air. The room was ready for the event. I noticed that most students were standing in their own groups, with familiar university peers. However, there was a group of young professional women standing next to the stage – I decided to leave my own Unitec group and introduce myself. The ladies happened to be discussing whether students would come and introduce themselves or not, and were the young professionals on the panel. I also remember an enthusiastic communicator, Louisa Jones announcing herself as a last-minute substitute MC in Brad Pogson’s absence. After a brief introduction and discussion, the ladies excused themselves to start the panel. Insights from Young Professionals – A PRINZ Student event was about to begin.

The panellists shared their experiences and advice on being a student, getting internships, and the world of work. The young professionals discussed their experiences in the workplace. Discussions included their experiences around being nervous, working hard, and finding confidence. The panellists also shared stories about how they found jobs through connecting with industry people early in their careers. The speakers also shared advice on not being scared to ask for help and encouraged us to get out there and meet people. The panel event ended with a Q+A session.

After the panel event students and lectures got to meet some of the speakers and ask more questions. I got to re-meet some of the professionals and ask them about their work. I remember the experience being a bit tricky, as crowds of students gathered around the speakers to talk. I wanted to speak to Louisa, but she was busy talking to other students.

I am looking forward to this year’s Insights from Young Professionals. The panellists for the night are:

  • Rebecca Lee
  • Lydia Tebbutt
  • Susana Suisuiki (Sana)
  • Alex Harman
  • Keith Cowden-Brown
  • Rachel Mayall
  • Tessa Williams
  • Eugene Afanassiev.

I already know a couple of the panellists from previous networking events, such as Rebecca Lee. I am excited to hear her stories and advice, as her driven and friendly personality shone through when we first met. She also gave great advice!

Then there’s Tessa Williams. She works for the Public Relations agency, Porter Novelli, where I am currently interning.

Tessa is a hard worker with a fearless approach to new challenges. She has provided me with help and guidance during my time at Porter Novelli, and is an aspiring role model to work with.

I landed my internship after meeting Louisa Jones, the MC from last year’s Insight from Young Professionals event. Due to missing her after last year’s panel discussion, I arranged a catch up after the event to talk about University and work. I now work under Louisa, where she has been mentoring me and guiding me through agency life.

To all PR and media students I do recommend attending this year’s Insight from Young Professionals event. I suggest pursuing the connections you make, and making the most of the advice from the panel. Go beyond the horizon, be different, and make real connections with the people you meet. Just like how I met Louisa, and pushed a domino.

Picture credit: iStock

What do you do when you feel an inch of self-inflicted pressure?

16 Aug

Written by Deanna Morse, PRINZ Student Ambassador


The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Deanna Morse, PRINZ Student Ambassador at University of Waikato.

Self-inflicted pressure is what you see when people are lining up for a job interview; slightly slouched and folded in, protecting themselves. Within PR, this pressure can be found before pitching to a new client, public speaking or any stressful activity – no matter how confident you feel within your presence and knowledge – it’s nerve-wracking.

When productivity, results and reputation are on the line, how can you feel less stressed and more confident?

“Our bodies change our minds. Our minds change our behaviour. Our behaviour changes our outcomes.”

‘Communication’ – we’re trained professionals in our natural habitat, our passion and purpose at least five days a week. What about non-verbal communication? This is still part of communication after all. We often think about how our verbal communication governs how other people think and feel about us, but it is even more influential to understand the potential of how our non-verbal communication governs how we think and feel about ourselves – our thoughts, feelings and psychology.

Your body language shapes who you are. Do you know how to control and influence this?

Amy Cuddy- social psychologist, author, and lecturer at Harvard Business School offers us a life-hack: change your posture. By doing so, you can significantly change how your life unfolds.

Right now – make an audit of your body. Audit your posture throughout the day during different situations. Do you typically hold your arms, cross your ankles or hunch forward?

Expressions of power dynamics are universal and traditional. Let’s implement this expression into our daily life and see what happens.

What to do? Power pose.

Step 1: Dedicate two minutes in a comfortable setting

Step 2: Hands on hips, stand up straight, tilt your head slightly upwards and breathe.

Step 3: Feel the power – if you feel silly, remove all negativity from your thoughts and solely concentrate on feeling powerful within your posture. All it takes is two minutes.

Science works. Your testosterone rises and your cortisol drops, meaning your hormones configure your brain to be more assertive, comfortable and confident. You will also be less reactive to stress.

How can power posing really change your life in meaningful ways? Try it in evaluative situations: public speaking, delivering pitches or job interviews. As public relations practitioners, we’re pushing boundaries. We’re constantly making noise and forming relationships – we need our body and brain to be on our side.

What will happen?

You will feel it, you will become 100% ‘you’. Experiments show your presence will be captivating, comfortable, authentic, confident, passionate and enthusiastic. Tiny tweaks equal big changes.

It only takes two minutes, what’s stopping you? Try the pose then share the science.

To watch to Amy Cuddy’s ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’ TED Talk, click here.

Picture credit: iStock

Why Do People Speed Up in Passing Lanes?

10 Aug

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight at Research First


It seems like such an annoying problem: You find yourself stuck behind a car that is crawling along as the road twists and turns its way through the countryside, only to have them speed up once you reach the passing lanes. Why does this happen?

One way to explain this phenomenon is to assume that the driver in the slower car is acting deliberately; that he or she is somehow trying to stop you overtaking them by accelerating ahead. And, in the process, that the other driver is consciously attempting to prevent you from reaching your destination in a timely manner. This view of other drivers sees the road as a place of contest and malice. A Darwinian struggle, red in tooth and claw, just to get to your destination. Explained like this, is it any wonder that people experience road rage?

Fortunately, there are better explanations we can draw on. As any good social scientist will point out, Hanlon’s Law tells us that we should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by human frailty. The ‘frailty’ in this case is one of perception, and in particular how our brains perceive speed. Simply put, narrower roads increase the perception of speed, and wider roads decrease that perception.

Which may seem obvious, but how does it explain why people actually speed up when the road widens? To do that, we need to refer to what is known as ‘risk homeostasis’. This is the idea that all of us have a certain amount of perceived risk that we think is acceptable. When the perceived risk is below that particular level (or goes above it), we change our behaviour to adjust how much risk we feel. When a narrow road becomes wider (such as with the addition of a passing lane), the risk sensation decreases and our behaviour changes to reflect that.

Homeostatsis works just like the thermostat in your heat pump at home, turning up the heat or cooling down the room to keep the desired temperature. You can see it in action in passing lanes as people speed up as the road widens and slow down as the passing lane ends and the road narrows. It may look like they are playing cat-and-mouse with you, but they’re not (at least not most of the time).

Research from Europe demonstrates just how much impact road width can have on driving behaviour. Increasing the width of a road lane from 6m to 8m sees average speeds increase from 80kmh to between 90 and 100kmh. Moreover, adding to the number of lanes on a road (such as with passing lanes) produces faster speeds even where the width of individual lanes remains constant.

What is interesting about the link between road width and the perception of speed is that road designers clearly know this. They often use what are called ‘gateway treatments’ to make roads appear narrower as they enter populated areas. These ‘gateways’ can be physical or they can simply be visual (such as different road markings).

Yet this understanding of how width affects the perception of speed seems strangely out of synch with the posters and signs that often get erected to remind drivers to be considerate, to pull over, and let others pass. That is, the built environment sends drivers one set of signals while the signs and posters attempt to send the opposite signal. In many ways that is like sitting down to the all-you-can-eat buffet at your favourite restaurant while surrounded by posters warning about the dangers of obesity.

Researchers also know that perceptions of speed are strongly influenced by peripheral vision and noise. The evidence is clear that peripheral vision deteriorates with age (with the size of our visual field decreasing by about three degree per decade). Researchers from the University of Chicago have argued that this leads to older drivers having lower risk thresholds (and hence driving slower) to compensate for this lack of vision.

Similarly, we all use noise to help estimate our speed. This means that better sealed roads (such as in passing lanes) will also lead to lower perceived speeds. Equally, it means that people in older cars may well think they are travelling faster than they are.

So why do people speed up in passing lanes? Because we have created the perfect environment to encourage them to do so. With the best will in the world, we have created a passing infrastructure that makes it difficult to pass.

This may seem like a cosmic joke but it is an example of what social scientists call ‘the law of unintended consequences’. This warns us that interventions in complex systems tend to have unanticipated and often perverse outcomes. Which might point to the real insight contained in Hanlon’s Law: that in the absence of proper understanding, human frailty often appears indistinguishable from malice.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Why is everyone so busy?

13 Jul

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

To do list with so many things note on paper with paper balls and pen

If you’re like most people, you probably get to the end of the day wondering where the hours went. Equally, you probably struggle to remember the last time you had a conversation that didn’t involve someone talking about how busy they were.

The expression ‘time-poor’ emerged towards the end of the twentieth-century and it seems to undeniably describe modern living. For those who like to supersize their maladies, there is the notion of ‘hurry sickness’. According to Psychology Today, this describes a pattern of behaviour characterised by “continual rushing and anxiousness; an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency [where] a person feels chronically short of time”. If you easily get frustrated with delays, you probably have it. And if a slow internet connection enrages you, then you definitely do. But it could be worse, in Japan there is a condition known as ‘karoshi’, which translates roughly as ‘death from overwork’.

A quick search of Google reveals that there are two broad responses to this escalation of busyness in our lives. The first response is all about finding ways to use our time more effectively and efficiently. It’s hard to escape the impression that this is billion dollar industry, with a seemingly endless selection of tools, apps, books, and training course to make us all more productive.
The second response involves some measure of unplugging from modern life. In this corner we have an equally impressive array of people and products promising to help us downshift, declutter, and disengage.

Not for the first time (and with apologies to Anthony Giddens), social science suggests there is a third way. This response starts from the counterintuitive point that our lives aren’t really any busier than they were in the past.

Despite how it might seem, the evidence is clear that New Zealanders in paid employment work fewer hours, on average, than they did in 2001. Equally, the data we have about leisure time (or what social scientists call ‘time spent free of obligation and necessity’) shows no decrease over the last 20 years.

How we spend our leisure time has definitely changed (more time in front of screens and less time in organised sport), as have the parts week that get counted as ‘leisure’, but it’s not getting any scarcer.

It’s true that these are general patterns drawn from averages and your mileage may vary. But the argument is stronger if we reverse it: there is no evidence that we are more ‘time-poor’ than in the past. This in itself is a remarkable insight.

It is also the kind of paradox that social scientists love. Clearly being ‘time-poor’ or having a dose of ‘hurry-sickness’ is real for many people (and it’s particularly hard to fake karoshi). Yet the cause must lie in something other than an objective intensification of everyday life.

The answer seems to be in how perceive our time in the context of the number of ways we have of spending it. What the world we live in clearly does is magnify the conflict between the parts of our brains that crave novelty and fear loss. This is then further magnified by the rapid diffusion of digital technology. No matter what you are doing, there is a world of distraction just a click away.

In this context, choosing to do just one thing, no matter how worthy, means not doing any number of others. Even where you like the choice you have made, the act of discounting the alternatives creates stress. As does second-guessing your choices by thinking about the more productive ways you could have used your time. In this regard we are all like Proust, in search of lost time.

But life is too short and Proust is too long to live this way. The view from the social sciences is that the key to overcoming hurry sickness is to place more value on our time. Doing so will help arrest the tendency many of us have to be easily distracted. Here what matters is not so much how to save time but how to spend our attention.

Because, to paraphrase Annie Dillard – ‘how we spend our hours is, of course, how we spend our lives’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

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