Mental juggling: when does multitasking impair reading comprehension?

J Gen Psychol. 2015;142(2):90-105. doi: 10.1080/00221309.2014.1003029.


The present study investigated the conditions under which multitasking impairs reading comprehension. Participants read prose passages (the primary task), some of which required them to perform a secondary task. In Experiment 1, we compared two different types of secondary tasks (answering trivia questions and solving math problems). Reading comprehension was assessed using a multiple-choice test that measured both factual and conceptual knowledge. The results showed no observable detrimental effects associated with multitasking. In Experiment 2, the secondary task was a cognitive load task that required participants to remember a string of numbers while reading the passages. Performance on the reading comprehension test was lower in the cognitive load conditions relative to the no-load condition. The present study delineates the conditions under which multitasking can impair or have no effect on reading comprehension. These results further our understanding of our capacity to multitask and have practical implications in our technologically advanced society in which multitasking has become commonplace.

Keywords: cognitive load; dual-task; multitasking; reading comprehension; task switch.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Problem Solving / physiology
  • Reading*