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Clifford I. Nass, Stanford Professor Who Studied Multitasking, Dies at 55

Clifford I. Nass, a Stanford University communication professor who studied human interaction with technology and challenged the idea that people can multitask effectively, died on Saturday.

Mr. Nass, 55, was at the Stanford Sierra Camp, near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., for the fall faculty and staff weekend at the time of his death, according to an announcement on the university’s website. He collapsed following a hike, a university official said. The cause of death is unknown.

Mr. Nass had been at Stanford since 1986. He studied the social nature of people’s interactions with technology and, later, the effects of digital multitasking on productivity and social and emotional development.

In 2009, Mr. Nass and two colleagues published a study concluding that people presented with multiple streams of information simultaneously are unable to pay attention or move from one task to another as well as those who executed a single job at a time.

“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” Mr. Nass said at the time.

A year later he and his colleagues began studying the effects of chronic technology multitasking—texting, searching the web, watching YouTube videos, etc.—on the young. In 2012 he published a study showing that preteen girls who spend large amounts of time multitasking with digital devices suffer negative effects.

“The results were incredibly upsetting,” Mr. Nass said in a video in which he summarized the results. “Kids who were heavy media users, heavy multitaskers, showed much worse social and emotional development. What’s happening is kids are not practicing basic emotional skills.”

Working in the 1990s with Byron Reeves, another Stanford communication professor, Mr. Nass ran dozens of social-interaction experiments in which a computer or a television set was substituted for a human subject. The pair produced a body of work concluding that people respond to computers much as they do to one another, and that they react to objects on television as if they were real.

“When Cliff first published the findings, they were revolutionary and surprising,” said Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor of communication at Stanford, in the statement published on the university’s website. “Indeed, Bill Gates championed the work as ‘amazing.’ Now its impact can be seen so pervasively that we take social relationships with media for granted.”

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