Are You Good At Multitasking? Maybe Not
January 24, 2013

Study Points To People’s Inability To Multitask

Enid Burns for — Your Universe Online

While reading this article, you may switch over to your email to check for messages, browse Facebook, and possibly do some task related to work. Does that make you an effective multitasker?

About 70 percent of people rate themselves above average at multitasking, according to a study conducted by professors in the psychology department at the University of Utah. The study finds that the number of people who believe themselves to be effective multitaskers is a statistical impossibility, and that most people who think they multitask well actually don't.

The study was conducted by psychology professors David Sanbonmatsu and David Strayer with participation from co-authors Jason Watson, an associate professor of psychology and Nathan Medeiros-Ward, a doctoral student in psychology. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety funded the study.

In the report, which was published in the January 23 edition of PLOS ONE, an online journal of the Public Library of Science, identifies traits of people who multitask. While there was an emphasis on driving, the study offers insight into multitasking in other aspects of life, such as work.

The researchers identified several profiles of those who multitask, and why. "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," said Strayer, summarizing his findings.

Participants in the study included 310 University of Utah psychology undergraduates who volunteered for the department's subject pool in exchange for extra course credit. Those who participated in the study performed a test named Operation Span, or OSPAN. The OSPAN test involves two tasks: memorization and math computation. Participants were asked to remember two- to- seven letters, each separated by a math equation that they must identify as true or false.

Separately, participants were also asked to rank their perceptions of their own multitasking ability by giving themselves a score from zero to 100, with 50 percent representing average. A statistically high number of participants identified themselves as being above average at multitasking. "One of the main reasons people multitask is because they think they are good at it," Sanbonmatsu said. "But our study suggests people rarely are as good at multitasking as they think they are."

Working on multiple tasks at one time does not automatically make a person good at multitasking.

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

Multitasking may be an indication that someone lacks ability to focus. "Our data show people multitask because they have difficulty focusing on one task at a time. They get drawn into secondary tasks. “¦ They get bored and want that stimulation of talking while they are driving."

Those who tested well in the OPSPAN test, for their ability to multitask, are least likely to divide their attention to multiple tasks at one time. "The persons who are most capable of multitasking effectively are not the persons who are most likely to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously," the report´s authors said. "Instead, people who score high on a test of actual multitasking ability tend not to multitask because they are better able to focus attention on the task at hand."

The study applies to more tasks than driving and talking on a cell phone, a multitask that is often referred to as distracted driving and is banned in some states, however there are some key findings that apply to the road that help support legislation to prevent distracted driving.

"The more people multitask by talking on cell phones while driving or by using multiple media at once, the more they lack the actual ability to multitask, and their perceived multitasking ability 'was found to be significantly inflated,'" the report states.

The study recommends further legislation on distracted driving. "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 authors state.

An alarming finding in the study is that people most likely to multitask are least equipped to handle it. "People who engage in multitasking often do so not because they have the ability, but because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task," the report said. People often talk on a cell phone while driving because they are bored and seek the stimulation while driving.

The study concludes that cell phone use while driving "correlated significantly with sensation-seeking, indicating some people multitask because it is more stimulating, interesting and challenging, and less boring -- even if it may hurt their overall performance," the report said.