More and more media and distractions are competing for people's attention these days, so multitasking your way through the day is quickly becoming the norm — despite the fact that a number of studies show that humans are generally less effective when their attention is divided amongst several activities. If that's the case, why do people multitask? Researchers from Ohio State University set out to answer that question and discovered that multitasking provided test subjects with an emotional boost even despite the fact that they weren't actually being more productive. Dr. Zheng Joyce Wang, professor at OSU and lead author of the study, said that multitaskers "are not being more productive — they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work."
Dr. Wang's study tracked the behaviors of 19 students who reported frequent multitasking behavior and had them record and report all of their media and non-media activities three times a day for 28 days. When all was said and done, the study found that multitaskers felt more entertained or even relaxed thanks to multitasking, despite the fact that their cognitive needs weren't being fulfilled. The study also found that there was a habitual and self-reinforcing aspect to the behavior — habitual needs increased multitasking, and there was a feedback loop that integrated past media multitasking experiences into the most recent situation. Wang described some students who studied while watching TV, saying that "they felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining. The combination of the activities accounts for the good feelings obtained." Of course, it's not too surprising that students preferred studying with the TV on, and the fact that this study only looked at university students means there's some inherent bias here — but at least it helps shed some light on why we may keep engaging in an activity that we know to be sub-optimal.