Humans by nature tend to both overestimate their own abilities to do things and despair on the perceived ability of others to do the same.
We all believe we are special. Indeed, that’s why we would all likely be in agreement that talking on the phone or texting while driving is dangerous and should not be done. Yet when push comes to shove, we may make exceptions for ourselves, and take a call that comes in while we careen down the freeway. We tell ourselves that we can handle it, that we are adept multitaskers, or supertaskers, even as we give dirty looks to others doing the same thing.
It appears that some of us are right about being supertaskers, but it is probably not who you think (meaning not you).
A recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Utah was designed to examine the extent to which subjects could talk on a mobile phone and drive at the same time.
The 200 subjects participated in a driving simulation that mimicked ordinary traffic conditions, with occasional instances where they would have to slow down to avoid hitting something in front of them. As a baseline, each participant drove with no other stimulus and then drove while engaging in a conversation via a hands-free mobile phone. The researchers read sets of two to five words, with simple math problems that had to be indentified as true or false interspersed between the word sets. The subject was then asked to recall words in the order that they were presented.
The study found that 97.5% of the subjects’ driving was significantly impaired while on the phone, meaning they took an average of 20% longer to hit the brakes when necessary. Word recall dropped 11% and math accuracy dropped 3%.
However, the study also revealed that 2.5% of the subjects drove and multitasked the same or actually better while on the phone. For that group brake response times remained the same, math accuracy was unchanged, and word recall accuracy actually rose 3%.
Sounds great? Here is the problem.
If you think you are one of these people, you probably are not. Statistically, the odds are against you, you have about a one in 40 probability of being a supertasker. Additionally, people who are very good at things tend to underestimate their abilities, while those who are not as good tend to overestimate. This is backed up by research from Stanford that shows that those who frequently multitask are actually worse at it than those that avoid it.
For the overwhelming majority of knowledge workers, while they may believe that they are faster and more efficient by multitasking, multitasking actually slows down the flow of work and can introduce errors and mistakes. Statistics say you are unlikely to actually be a supertasker, so just don’t do it.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.