Here come the supertaskers

New technologies and social media are training up the next generation of superbrains, but are young

Young people today are dangerously self-obsessed, over-cosseted and computer-addled - or so the media would have us believe. Recent science stories seem to confirm popular concerns about the feckless brains of Generation Whatever (to use the latest label). But we are not getting the whole story.

On 29 May, British newspapers rushed to report on a study by Sara Konrath, a University of Michigan researcher, showing that current college students are lacking in empathy compared to their predecessors. The study concludes that "college kids today are about 40 per cent lower in empathy". The biggest fall came after the year 2000 - the advent of mass connectivity - according to the survey of 14,000 personality tests over the past three decades. Konrath says that modern students are far less likely to agree with lines such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me".

Presenting their findings on 27 May, Konrath and her colleague Edward O'Brien told the US Association for Psychological Science that the rise of social media seemed to be a factor: "The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems - a behaviour that could carry over offline." Thus, "many people", Konrath said, "see the current group of college students as one of the most self-centred, narcissistic, competitive, confident and indivi­dualistic in recent history".

It is a popular impression. Not only is Generation Whatever accused of unprecedented selfishness, but we are told that it is getting increasingly stupid. Again, technology is blamed. In June, for example, a Duke University study found that having home computers and broadband lowers students' scores in reading and maths - particularly if they don't have the sort of middle-class parents who nag them to lay off the messaging and gaming.

Techy teens

But are these concerns new? "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words . . . and impatient of restraint." That was the poet Hesiod in the 8th century BC.

The human basics may have changed very little - but that does not make headlines. In March, the British media ignored a University of Western Ontario study of 477,380 high-school seniors in 1976 and 2006, which found that Generation Whatever looks very similar to youth from the mid-1970s. The main difference, said the study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is that the new generation of young people has higher expectations of its education and is less trustful of government. So perhaps it cares more.

Jeroen Boschma, creative director of the advertising firm Keesie, based in Rotterdam, believes as much. He told the Spanish newspaper El País the story of how he interviewed a 17-year-old for a job and asked him a tough technical question to see how he would react. The candidate did not know the answer, but requested a minute to find out, consulted an online forum and got more than 100 informed responses from across the world.

In 2006, Boschma published the book Generation Einstein: Smarter, Faster and More Socially Aware, to loud media buzz. He believes that rapid-paced technology has imbued these so-called "digital natives" with new qualities: they challenge authority and are highly pragmatic in dealing with information. "This sets them apart from any other generation and has consequences that are by no means trivial."

Certainly, young people are politically engaged on a scale unseen since the 1960s, thanks to their ability to clamber on to the internet's global soapbox. For example, when Farouk Olu Aregbe, a recent graduate in the US, set up the One Million Strong for Obama Facebook group, it rapidly gained 820,000 members. And in Britain, pressure from a 5,000-strong Facebook group forced HSBC to stop charging interest on graduates' overdrafts.

The laptop revolutionaries can also be altruistic. Twitter and Facebook were still primarily driven by college students when these networks overwhelmed the Red Cross with millions of texted $10 gifts to Haitian earthquake relief. Digital networking, far from merely fostering passivity, has created a generation that can engage vigorously and fast. Empathy has not disappeared - it is simply taking different forms.

And it's not just empathy that is changing. The idea that the human population is developing a different kind of intelligence is another common idea. Studies by James Flynn, a professor of political studies at Otago University, New Zealand, who specialises in measuring intelligence, show a consistent rise in global IQ performance of roughly 3 per cent per decade, in some cases going back to the early 20th century. This implies that, over the past 100 years, the IQs of people (predominantly in the west) have risen by about 30 points, an observation known as the "Flynn effect".

Flynn believes that our brains have changed in recent decades because TV, computers and social networking challenge the brain in new ways and for far longer periods of time. Those challenges are developing quickly. The plotlines for The Wire are infinitely more complex than those of, say, The Good Life in the 1970s. Games such as Civilization IV re-create human economic and technological history, challenging teens to work out whether they should develop an agrarian capitalist society or a monarchy.

But Flynn argues that his "effect" does not show a genetic increase in intelligence per se. It is the product of a bias in IQ tests towards abstract-reasoning intelligence. Our brains are becoming more creative, but this is perhaps at the cost of older, everyday skills.

This theory is echoed by Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. He believes the generation that has grown up using computers is having a harder time reading social cues. "Even though [they] are very good with the tech skills, they are weak with the face-to-face human contact skills," he told the New York Times in April.

Such shifts in consciousness are not without peril. Two recently published studies - by the University of California and the University of Southern California - indicate that our constant diet of digital news is beginning to move faster than our ability to make moral judgements. Rapid info-bursts of stabbings, suffering and war are consumed but may not make us indignant, compassionate or inspired.

Yet there is evidence, too, that the human brain is advancing its ability to sift informa-tion quickly. We appear to be evolving rapidly under pressure from unprecedented demands, using evolutionary mechanisms we are just beginning to understand. One is called epigenetics - a frontier science that is revealing how the changes we experience in our brains during our lives do not simply go to the grave with us, but can be passed on to our offspring.

Scientists are also discovering that the brain retains high levels of plasticity throughout our lives, particularly if we keep challenging it with new learning.

Speed-freaks

Tomorrow's people may already be buzzing away among us. They will include the "supertaskers". For most of us, multitasking is tough. Trials show that it tends to result in two things done poorly rather than one done well. But one in 40 people appears immune to this problem. These lucky speed-freaks can, for example, drive and talk on a mobile phone at the same time without loss of concentration on either task, according to tests on 200 people by the Utah University psychologist Jason Watson.

Supertaskers constitute only 2.5 per cent of the population, Watson believes. But even that level is surprisingly high. "According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," he says in a paper soon to be published by the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Further research into supertaskers may reveal how the multitasking regions of their brains are different, due to some inherited variation. Watson predicts that employers in high-performance professions will want to screen for genetic markers of supertasking ability. Generation Whatever's multi-mediated brains may be the key to our ever-faster future.

But even in a hyper-accelerated culture, someone is going to have to pay close attention to socially indispensable matters such as law, politics, academia and medicine - disciplines that demand conscientiousness and a gimlet eye for mono-tasking detail. Old-brainers, the over-thirties, aren't out of business yet. So we should not be so snippy about welcoming the children of the network-minded generation, even if we don't understand their ways.

John Naish is the author of "Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More" (Hodder, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.