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Think you’re great at multitasking? Think again

REUTERS/Fred Prouser
People who believe they can multitask effectively — say, talk on a cell phone while driving — are the least likely to be able to do so.

Think you’re great at multitasking?

You’re probably wrong. According to a new study, people who believe they can multitask effectively — say, talk on a cell phone while driving — are the least likely to be able to do so.

“Our data suggest the people talking on cell phones while driving are people who probably shouldn’t,” said one of the authors of the study, University of Utah psychologist David Sanbonmatsu, in a prepared statement.

The study was published Wednesday in the online journal PLoS One.


For the study, Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues recruited 277 undergraduate students (156 men, 121 women). The students were asked to perform an attention-demanding task widely used in psychological experiments called Operation Span (OSPAN). It involves memorizing a series of letters while doing simple math calculations.

The students were also asked to fill out standardized questionnaires that measure impulsiveness and sensation seeking. In addition, they were asked questions about their media use, including how often they used two or more types of media at the same time, and about their driving habits, particularly their use of cell phones while driving. The mean reported frequency of time spent on the phone while driving for these students was 13.3 percent. (A 2012 national survey revealed that 10 percent of young adults ages 16 to 24 years are on their phone at any one time.)

One of the questionnaires asked the students to rank their multitasking ability relative to other students. Some 70 percent of them said they were (like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon children) “above average” at multitasking.

Key findings

Of course, it’s statistically impossible for 70 percent of people to be above average on anything. But, as Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues point out in their paper, “the inflated estimations relative to average were not the only indicators that participants’ perceptions of their multi-tasking ability were poorly grounded in reality.”

Indeed, the chronically multitasking students who had inflated estimates of their multitasking abilities were the least capable of doing it effectively. On the other hand, those students who tended not to multitask in “real life” were among the 25 percent who scored the highest on the study’s OSPAN test. They were much better able to keep their attention focused on the task at hand.

The study also found, perhaps not surprisingly, that highly impulsive and sensation-seeking students reported engaging in more multi-tasking — with one exception. The students who most frequently talked on their cells phones while driving were not found to be more impulsive than their peers. Boredom rather than impulsivity may be why they turn to their phones while behind the wheel.

“Our data show people multitask because they have difficulty focusing on one task at a time. They get drawn into secondary tasks,” said Sanbonmatsu. “…They get bored and want that stimulation of talking while they are driving.”

And that’s a dangerous thing. For as Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues also point out, the National Safety Council has estimated that at least 24 percent of all highway accidents and fatalities in the United States are caused by distracted drivers.

Sanbonmatsu’s study can be downloaded and read in full on the PLoS website.

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