Multitasking Boosts Performance, Research Finds

Although it's an illusion.

Man working with multiple electronic internet devices.
Artie Medvedev / Shutterstock

Although it's an illusion.

Previous research suggests that humans are incapable of multitasking. Even though we may think that we are paying attention to multiple tasks at the same time, we are, in fact, switching between them.

A new research published in Psychological Science, “The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance,” relates to our perception of multitasking and how it pertains to performance.

Researchers Shalena Srna of University of Michigan, Rom Y. Schrift of the University of Pennsylvania, and Gal Zauberman of Yale conducted 32 studies containing a total of 8,242 participants in an effort to find out if shifting perceptions about multitasking changes engagement with the tasks at hand.

In one lab-based study, 162 individuals were recruited – and separated into two groups – to watch and transcribe and Animal Planet video. Both engaged in the same activities but were led to believe that their activities differed. Half of the study participants were told they would be completing two tasks: a transcribing task, and a learning task. The other half were told that they would be completing a single task in order to test their writing abilities, however.

The results show that those who have been lead to believe that they were multitasking scored better on a quiz, wrote faster, and transcribed the material with more accuracy.

A similar pattern was observed in a number of studies.

Businessman multitasking
  alphaspirit / Shutterstock

In an online study, the researchers tried to subtly manipulate study participants and influence their perception. Each participant was asked to complete two-word puzzles at the same time. However, some saw puzzles displayed against different background colors and led to believe that they were participating in two different studies. The other half of participants saw puzzles displayed against the same background — this was meant to make them believe that the different puzzles were part of a single study.

Expectedly, those who perceived the task as multitasking – the group which was lead to believe that they were participating in two different studies – completed the task better.

“Multitasking is often a matter of perception or can even be thought of as an illusion,” researcher Shalena Srna explained in a statement supplied to ScienceDaily, “regardless of whether people actually engage in a single task or multiple tasks, making them perceive this activity as multitasking is beneficial to performance.”

In order to find out why the illusion of multitasking boosts performance, the researchers conducted lab-based versions of the online word puzzle study, By using eye-tracking technology to measure pupil dilation of study participants, the researchers established that those who were multitasking showed greater pupil dilation.

This, the researchers conclude, that multitasking makes us focus better, as we put more effort in remaining engaged with the tasks at hand.

“We find that multitasking is often a matter of perception that helps, rather than harms, engagement and performance. Thus, when we engage in a given activity, construing it as multitasking could help us.”