Think you can multitask well? You're wrong, scientists say

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: multitasking, impulsiveness, science

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(NaturalNews) Do you think that you're good at performing multiple tasks at one time, such as talking on the phone while driving? If so, then you're probably bad at it, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Utah and published in the journal PLOS ONE.

"If you have people who are multitasking a lot, you might come to the conclusion they are good at multitasking," researcher David Strayer said. "In fact, the more likely they are to do it, the more likely they are to be bad at it."

The study was performed on 310 undergraduate psychology students, who completed questionnaires about how often they used a cell phone while driving, what percentage of their driving time they spent on the phone, and how often and how long they spent consuming various forms of media (print, television/video, music, non-music audio, computer video, phone, instant and text messaging, video games, email, Internet sites and other computer software). Using this information, the researchers rated each participant on cell phone use while driving and an index of and media multitasking. Participants also completed established tests of impulsivity and sensation seeking.

The researchers found that the average participant spent about 13 percent of driving time on the phone, which is consistent with federal estimates that one in 10 drivers on the road at any given time is also on the telephone.

The participants then completed a test to measure actual multitasking ability. Participants were asked to memorize between two and seven letters, each one separated by a math equation that they had to identify as true or false (e.g., g, is 3-2=2?, a, is 4x3=12?). Before completing the test, participants were asked to rank their multitasking ability from zero to 100 (with 50 signifying average).

Impulsive and sensation-seeking

The researchers found that 70 percent of participants rated themselves as above-average in multitasking ability, which cannot be true statistically. Furthermore, the participants who multitasked the most - whether in media use or while driving - actually scored lowest on the test of multitasking ability. People who multitasked the least, in contrast, were found to be better able to focus their attention on a single task, which actually translated into better multitasking ability.

The surprising results may be explained by another of the study's findings: participants who scored highest on measures of impulsivity and sensation-seeking were most likely to multitask. That is, people who get bored easily and who make impulsive decisions are most likely to switch between tasks frequently. The findings suggest that frequent multitaskers do so not because they are good at it, the researchers wrote, but "because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task."

"The people who multitask the most tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident of their multitasking abilities, and they tend to be less capable of multitasking," Strayer said.

"The negative relation between cellular communication while driving and multitasking ability appears to further bolster arguments for legislation limiting the use of cell phones while operating a motor vehicle," the researchers wrote.


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