Frequent Multitaskers are Bad at It
Most people believe they can multitask effectively, but a University of Utah study indicates that people who multitask the most -- including talking on a cell phone while driving -- are least capable of doing so.
"What is alarming is that people who talk on cells phones while driving tend to be the people least able to multitask well," says psychology Professor David Sanbonmatsu, a senior author of the study. "Our data suggest the people talking on cell phones while driving are people who probably shouldn't. We showed that people who multitask the most are those who appear to be the least capable of multitasking effectively."
The new study was scheduled for publication Jan. 23 in PLOS ONE, an online journal of the Public Library of Science.
The other senior author, University of Utah psychology Professor David Strayer, adds, "The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it, when in fact they are no better than average and often worse."
Citing humorist Garrison Keillor's catchphrase about kids in Keillor's fictitious hometown, Strayer says people who use cell phones while driving "all think they live in Lake Wobegon, where everybody is above average. But it's a statistical impossibility."
The study ran 310 undergraduate psychology students through a battery of tests and questionnaires to measure actual multitasking ability, perceived multitasking ability, cell phone use while driving, use of a wide array of electronic media, and personality traits such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking. The key findings:
- "The persons who are most capable of multitasking effectively are not the persons who are most likely to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously." 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 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." In fact, 70 percent of participants thought they were above average at multitasking, which is statistically impossible.
- People with high levels of impulsivity and sensation-seeking reported more multitasking. However, there was an exception: People who talk on cell phones while driving tend not to be impulsive, indicating that cell phone use is a deliberate choice.
- The research suggests that 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 researchers conclude, "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."
Sanbonmatsu and Strayer conducted the study with University of Utah co-authors Jason Watson, an associate professor of psychology, and Nathan Medeiros-Ward, a doctoral student in psychology. The study was funded by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety.