Steve Cohen has seven monitors at his desk. Should you, too?

Is that really necessary, sir?
Is that really necessary, sir?
Image: Highways Agency / Flickr
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Last week, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused  hedge funder Steve Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital, of failing to properly supervise his employees who engaged in insider trading. Today, Cohen’s lawyers refuted the civil charges with a 46-page white paper. This passage caught our eye (emphasis added):

Cohen’s office set-up on Long Island consisted of seven monitors, and the Outlook email program was on the monitor to the far left.

Under the standard configuration for setting up Cohen’s monitors, the Outlook application ran in a window in the background of that monitor, behind two other applications, “CQG” and “Bridge.” For Cohen to view an email, he would have had to make Outlook the active window, and minimize Bridge and possibly CQG. Even then, the “Reading Pane,” a feature that permits a user to preview an item in the Inbox without opening it, is turned off—Cohen uses the AutoPreview feature, which is configured to show only the first three lines of the text of an email. The AutoPreview version of the email the Research Trader forwarded would not have displayed the lines “second hand read,” (because it was three emails down in the chain) or any other content of the email.

Moreover, Outlook was reduced in size so that Cohen could only see, at most, five emails at a time and, by 1:37 p.m., Cohen had received so any emails on his Office account (his default set-up at his Long Island office) that the one forwarded from the Research Trader would not have appeared on the screen. Accordingly, to read the “second hand read” email on his computer screen after the Research Trader’s call ended, Cohen would have had to turn to the far left of his seven screens, minimize one or two computer programs, scroll down his emails, double-click into the “second hand read” email to open it, read down three chains of forwards and digest the information all in 15 to 25 seconds.

Seven screens?! That’s a lot of screens, you say. Does a person really need that many? Well if Steve Cohen has seven screens…hmm.

Multiple studies suggest that having a second or third screen makes workers more productive. But it’s not clear that an excessive number of screens are helpful at all—well, aside from providing a helpful excuse in legal proceedings.

Multiple screens save time because they allow users to keep things open that they look at periodically, without having to search for and open up programs. Users can dedicate screens to single programs, which is easier than having a bunch of programs open on a bigger screen.

The initial research suggesting that more screens were better, sponsored (surprise, surprise!) by NEC Display Solutions, actually had more to do with pixels and screen space, not the sheer number of monitors. For single monitors, productivity gains begin to decline before screens hit 30 inches. They didn’t test more than two monitors, and didn’t test dual screen configurations larger than 20 inches.

Moreover, using multiple monitors increases the probability of distraction, even when one thinks she’s multitasking effectively. Clifford Nass, who researches multi-tasking at Stanford Universtiy, told PBS, “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.” And research by the University of Michigan found in a study that even a three-second distraction can double the error rate on a primary task.

There’s probably a sweet spot for the number of screens one can use effectively at any given time without becoming distracting, and maybe Cohen’s multi-monitor sweet spot is seven. But judging from the time his lawyers allege it would have taken him to even access his email, we have a feeling he’s not making good use of screen space.