Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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Multitasking: New Study Challenges Previous Cognitive Theory But Shows That Only A Few “Supertaskers” Can Drive And Phone

Read The Original Research Paper HERE (PDF – internal link)

A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.

These individuals – described by the researchers as “supertaskers” – constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.

Jason Watson, a University of Utah psychologist, negotiates cybertraffic in a driving simulator used to study driver distractions such as cell phones and testing. While many people think they can safely drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, Watson's new study shows only one in 40 is a "supertasker" who can perform both tasks at once without impairment of abilities measured in the study. Credit: Valoree Dowell, University of Utah

The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

This finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone – the study confirms that the vast majority cannot – but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers’ extraordinary performance.

“According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist,” says Watson. “Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we’d probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row.”

The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas—braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.

As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.

For those who were not supertaskers and who talked on a cell phone while driving the simulators, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with simulated traffic while driving. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell 3 percent.

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However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved 3 percent.

The results are in line with Strayer’s prior studies showing that driving performance routinely declines under “dual-task conditions” – namely talking on a cell phone while driving – and is comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.

Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals’ performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.

“There is clearly something special about the supertaskers,” says Strayer. “Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned.”

Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to have extraordinary multitasking ability.

The current value society puts on multitasking is relatively new, note the authors. As technology expands throughout our environment and daily lives, it may be that everyone – perhaps even supertaskers – eventually will reach the limits of their ability to divide attention across several tasks.

“As technology spreads, it will be very useful to better understand the brain’s processing capabilities, and perhaps to isolate potential markers that predict extraordinary ability, especially for high-performance professions,” Watson concludes.

Information from University of Utah

Read The Original Research Paper HERE (PDF – internal link)

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March 31, 2010 Posted by | anxiety, Books, brain, Cognition, Health Psychology, research, stress, Technology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Multi-Taskers may Muddle More!

The people who multitask the most are the ones who are worst at it. That’s the surprising conclusion of researchers at Stanford University, who found multitaskers are more easily distracted and less able to ignore irrelevant information than people who do less multitasking.

“The huge finding is, the more media people use the worse they are at using any media. We were totally shocked,” Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford’s communications department, said in a telephone interview.

MultitaskingThe researchers studied 262 college undergraduates, dividing them into high and low multitasking groups and comparing such things as memory, ability to switch from one task to another and being able to focus on a task. Their findings are reported in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When it came to such essential abilities, people who did a lot of multitasking didn’t score as well as others, Nass said.

Still to be answered is why the folks who are worst at multitasking are the ones doing it the most.

It’s sort of a chicken-or-egg question.

“Is multitasking causing them to be lousy at multitasking, or is their lousiness at multitasking causing them to be multitaskers?” Nass wondered. “Is it born or learned?”

In a society that seems to encourage more and more multitasking, the findings have social implications, Nass observed. Multitasking is already blamed for car crashes as several states restrict the use of cell phones while driving. Lawyers or advertisers can try to use irrelevant information to distract and refocus people to influence their decisions.

In the study, the researchers first had to figure out who are the heavy and light multitaskers. They gave the students a form listing a variety of media such as print, television, computer-based video, music, computer games, telephone voice or text, and so forth.

The students were asked, for each form of media, which other forms they used at the same time always, often, sometimes or never.

The result ranged from an average of about 1.5 media items at the low end to more than four among heavy multitaskers.

Then they tested the abilities of students in the various groups.

For example, ability to ignore irrelevant information was tested by showing them a group of red and blue rectangles, blanking them out, and then showing them again and asking if any of the red ones had moved.

The test required ignoring the blue rectangles. The researchers thought people who do a lot of multitasking would be better at it.

“But they’re not. They’re worse. They’re much worse,” said Nass. The high media multitaskers couldn’t ignore the blue rectangles. “They couldn’t ignore stuff that doesn’t matter. They love stuff that doesn’t matter,” he said.

Perhaps the multitaskers can take in the information and organize it better? Nope.

“They are worse at that, too,” Nass said.

“So then we thought, OK, maybe they have bigger memories. They don’t. They were equal” with the low multitaskers, he added.

Finally, they tested ability to switch from one task to another by classifying a letter as a vowel or consonant, or a number as even or odd. The high multitaskers took longer to make the switch from one task to the other.

This particularly surprised the researchers, considering the need to switch from one thing to another in multitasking.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” lead author Eyal Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

The next step is to look into what multitaskers are good at and see if the difference between high and low multitaskers is one of “exploring” versus “exploiting” information.

“High multitaskers just love more and more information. Their greatest thrill is to get more,” he said. On the other hand, “exploiters like to think about the information they already have.”

The research was funded by Stanford Major Grant, Volkswagen Grant, Nissan Grant and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: http://www.pnas.org

August 28, 2009 Posted by | Cognition, Social Psychology, stress | , | Leave a comment