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

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

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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 .

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

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