Study: If You Multitask Often, You're Impulsive and Bad at Multitasking

More

People who do it the most are actually the worst at it.

RTXRQ2I615.png
Jason Redmond/Reuters

PROBLEM: With the exception of texting while driving, which is absolutely deplorable, the ability to juggle multiple tasks at once is generally seen as impressive and, despite the fact that research suggests it actually makes it harder for us to process information, even necessary for getting by in modern society.

METHODOLOGY: Undergrads at the University of Utah were asked to rate their own multitasking prowess on a zero to 100 scale, and then were put to the test: They had to memorize a sequence of letters interspersed with simple math equations. The researchers also evaluated their impulsiveness and sensation-seeking qualities, and asked them how often they used their phones while driving and how much time they spent using various types of media.

RESULTS: There was a negative correlation between multitasking ability and practice: Those who performed worse on the test were the most frequent multitaskers in real life. The subjects in the top 25 percent of performers on the multitasking test were also the least likely to multitask. 

Meanwhile, 70 percent of participants rated themselves as above-average multitaskers. Not only was this a statistical impossibility, but those same people were also more likely to multitask, including driving while using their phones. They also scored high for impulsivity and sensation-seeking behavior.

CONCLUSION: As author David Strayer succinctly put it: "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."

IMPLICATIONS: Multitasking appears to be less of a special talent and more of an ADD-type behavior: The frequent multitaskers in this study were just unable to focus on one thing at a time. As for their misplaced faith in their ability, the researchers chalk this up to people's documented inability to assess themselves accurately, especially when it's about something that's perceived as important and desirable  After all, they write, "the concept of multitasking may be somewhat nebulous to laypersons." Laypersons who will just keep cooking while watching TV while forever texting, remaining woefully ignorant of their limited abilities.

 

The full study, "Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking ," is published in the journal PLOS ONE .

Jump to comments
Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In