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Clifford Nass, researcher on multitasking, dies at 55

Dr. Nass found that people who multitasked less frequently were better at it than those who did so frequently.

Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Dr. Nass found that people who multitasked less frequently were better at it than those who did so frequently.

NEW YORK — Clifford Nass — a Stanford professor whose pioneering research into how humans interact with technology found that the increasingly screen-saturated, multitasking modern world was not nurturing the ability to concentrate, analyze, or feel empathy — died Saturday near Lake Tahoe. He was 55.

He had a heart attack at Stanford Sierra Camp, his son, Matthew, said. The university said he had returned from a hike and collapsed outside South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

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Dr. Nass, who majored in math at Princeton but became a professor of communication at Stanford, spent more than 25 years studying people as they confronted the constantly changing technology of the computer age: how they responded to simulated voices in the 1990s (we trust male voices to give us driving directions); the titillation of 24-hour news networks and smartphone swiping (we are naturally weak for endless streams of blather, whether on a television news crawl or Twitter); and the anxiety of operating (or not) a self-driving vehicle in the fast-arriving future.

The windshield, Dr. Nass said, was in danger of becoming just another screen.

“Imagine you get into an autonomous car, and it’s sunny outside, your suburban road is empty, and you’re playing ‘Angry Birds,’ ” Dr. Nass said in an interview with Automotive News this year, referring to the video game franchise.

“An hour later, the car asks you to take over within 10 seconds. Except now, it’s pouring rain, there’s tons of traffic downtown, and the car to your left rear is behaving erratically. These are things you would have noticed if you were driving.

“But now you are dropping in from outer space, basically. We have no idea whether people can mentally prepare themselves for this.”

Yet when it comes to managing irresistible new technologies, people tell themselves they are prepared. Denial is a great enabler, Dr. Nass found.

One of his most publicized research projects was a 2009 study on multitasking. He and his colleagues presumed that people who frequently juggle computer, phone, or television screens, or just different applications, would display some special skill at ignoring irrelevant information or efficiently switching between tasks or that they would prove to have a particularly orderly memory.

“We all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something,” he said in an interview with the PBS program “Frontline” after the paper he and his colleagues wrote, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” was published in 2009.

“We were absolutely shocked,” he said. “We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

He added, “One would think that, if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more.”

With children doing more multitasking and people asked to do more of it at work, he said, “We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.”

Much of Dr. Nass’s work was rooted in themes he explored in some of his earliest research: the idea that people relate to technological devices socially and that those interactions affect people.

In the 1990s, he and his colleagues conducted an experiment showing that people felt flattered when praised by computerized voices. In another experiment, a computer with a prominent green frame was used. Some of its users were given green armbands to wear; others were given blue armbands. The people wearing green armbands were more likely to feel favorably toward the computer.

“Everybody thought they were tools, that they were hammers and screwdrivers and things to be looked at in an inanimate fashion,” said Bryon Reeves, a Stanford communications professor who collaborated with Dr. Nass and wrote a book with him, “The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media as Real People and Places,” published in 1996.

“Cliff said, ‘No, these things talk, they have relationships with you, and they make you feel good or bad.’”

Clifford Ivar Nass was born in Teaneck, N.J., the youngest son of Jules and Florence Nass. His mother was a leader in New Jersey in efforts to stop drunken driving after Dr. Nass’s older brother, Michael, was killed by a drunk driver in 1981.

Michael preceded Clifford at Princeton, where both received their doctorates.

Clifford Nass received his undergraduate degree in math in 1981 and worked in computer science at Intel, where he helped develop the 286 processing chip. He initially expected to study computers in graduate school, but was drawn instead to sociology, particularly how people interact with technology. Reeves helped recruit him to Stanford in 1986, the year he received his doctorate.

In the 1990s, both men took time away from Stanford to consult with Microsoft, where they helped develop Microsoft Bob, a poorly received program that used animated figures and household rooms and objects with the intention of helping people navigate Windows. More recently, his projects included founding Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab and serving as codirector of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford.

The university says that the goal of the center, which gets financing from automakers, is “to radically reenvision the automobile for unprecedented levels of safety, performance, sustainability, and enjoyment.”

Dr. Nass’s son, from a marriage that ended in divorce, is his only immediate survivor.

Dr. Nass found that people who multitasked less frequently were better at it than those who did it frequently. He argued that heavy multitasking shortened attention spans and the ability to concentrate.

At Stanford, he was an adviser in a residential dorm and held “face to face” days there, requiring students to talk to one another without any technological device or interruption. Many found it difficult.

Dr. Nass, on the other hand, was at ease speaking to people in person and in explaining his academic work in compelling terms. His recent work asked whether increasing using of media and social media eroded social and emotional development. He argued that it did.

“The moral of this story here is really clear,” he said in a talk at Stanford this year. “We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’ ”

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