A new study finds that when people multitask, they enjoy pleasant activities less and tend to overindulge afterward to compensate.

The study from Germany and the Netherlands, suggests that this may be a problem. Distracting yourself this way can lead to what researchers call a “hedonic shortfall” that may prompt further, mindless indulgence.

The Wages Of Multitasking

In the study, 122 mostly young adults were contacted before they ate lunch and randomly assigned to one of three situations for eating their meal:

  • without distraction
  • while watching a video selected by the researchers (a medium-level distraction)
  • while playing Tetris with one hand (an online game that’s highly distracting)

After lunch, the participants reported on how distracted they were during lunch, how much they enjoyed eating, and how satisfied they’d felt with their lunch.

Later in the day (before dinner), they were contacted again and asked if they’d done any snacking since lunch, and if so, when and how much.

After analysing the results, the researchers found that the more distracted people were during lunch, the less satisfied they were and the less they enjoyed their meal.

Those who were least satisfied – and most distracted – ended up snacking more and longer later on.

The undistracted group was least likely to snack.

These results lend support to the theory that when people experience less pleasure during consumptive activities, it primes them to want to make up for that loss with compensatory consumption (like additional snacking).

But is that true in other situations? In another study, they asked 220 adults to fill out surveys seven times a day for a week, reporting on the number and type of consumption behaviour they engaged in in their everyday lives.

First, participants reported on whether they’d consumed anything between survey times (within the prior two hours, approximately). In other words, if they had eaten food, drunk alcohol, smoked, watched TV, gambled, gamed, used social media, and more – as well as how much and for how long.

If they had consumed something, they also reported:

  • where it happened
  • whether it conflicted with personal goals (for example, they were gaming instead of working)
  • how much they’d expected to enjoy the activity versus how much they actuallyenjoyed the activity
  • how satisfied they were after consuming
  • how distracted they were while consuming.

Again after analysing the results, the researchers found that when people were distracted, they enjoyed activities less (and less than they expected to), and that led them to want to indulge again more quickly, as if to make up for a pleasure shortfall, a phenomenon psychologists call “hedonic consumption.”

“Something as simple as eating a sandwich while simultaneously working, mind-wandering while reading a novel, or using one’s phone while watching television may be enough to stimulate elevated consumption,” the researchers write.

Consuming Mindfully

Of course, multitasking and overindulging aren’t always bad. However, this paper suggests it could be problematic for those who are trying to cut down on compulsive or unconscious behaviour for health reasons, or to avoid consequences in their work or social lives.

Those who routinely distract themselves during pleasurable experiences may be inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot, unaware of how it cuts down on their overall enjoyment and prompts further consumption.

“Knowing that increased hedonic consumption results from hedonic shortfall is valuable, for it advances the understanding of what drives problematic societal behaviour, including binge eating, excessive social media use, and gambling.”

More research is needed to really confirm this finding they add, especially since the loss of gratification didn’t always lead to more consumption.

However, given that we live in an “attention economy,” where we’re constantly bombarded with ads and potentially addictive technology, so it may be wise to take note. “Distraction may elicit this effect by rendering people forgetful of their health goals and desensitising people to satiating signals.”

Perhaps, if we took more time to savour the things we enjoy, for example, putting our phones away while eating or being more mindful when we’re drinking alcohol, we would be happier and stay healthier to-boot.

Though the researchers haven’t conducted studies to prove how mindfulness or savouring might affect overindulgence, past research suggests they can both help curb addictive behaviour.