The ability to multitask has been seen as a desirable and impressive skillset. People want to be efficient and effective, capable of concomitantly fulfilling several tasks set before them in a short amount of time.
The reality is manipulating multiple projects and actions can impair a persons’ cognitive ability to process vast amounts of necessary information.
Engaging in multiple attention demanding tasks simultaneously can be mentally and physically taxing, diminishing focus and energy. Overall performance can suffer as a result, increasing the likelihood of errors, and leading to frustration and anxiety.
This is why many people suffer from occupational burnout or drop out of college suddenly, feeling extraordinarily pressured to execute on the highest capable level of performance at all times in hopes of not overlooking the tiniest of essential details.
What’s worse is modern society practically requires a person to compartmentalize, prioritize, and allot numerous tasks into a short 24-hour day. We read email, text, chat on the phone, make lists of lists of lists, drive here there and everywhere. We’re self-proclaimed superheroes until we realize we’ve forgotten the one vital errand that fell through the cracks of a heavily scheduled day. And while driving we try to fit in a meal, mirror time with a mascara wand, and a cell phone conversation.
According to a study published in PLOS ONE, decision theory suggests people should multitask when they are both good at it and expect to benefit from it. People most likely to engage in multiple tasks are those who think they are capable and who expect the highest reward. However that is not to say the people who multitask are especially adroit.
Researchers attempted to understand why people multitask by examining the personality and traits of those who tend to multitask. The study isolated predictors of both general multitasking and a specific, socially-relevant form of multitasking.
Three Hundred and ten undergrads, 176 female and 134 male, at the University of Utah were recruited and asked to gauge their multitasking expertise on a scale from zero to 100. A five point rating scale was administered, asking how much difficulty each had with performing concurrent tasks.
The self-assessments for were paired with a media use questionnaire (developed by Ophir) which inquired as to the total number of hours spent utilizing 12 different forms of media. These included word processing applications, text and instant messaging, email, phone calls, and computer games. They were asked to assess how often they engaged in using multiple media tools simultaneously.
Researchers evaluated their impulsiveness and sensation-seeking qualities, and asked them how often they used their phones when driving.
Finally the undergrads were put to the physical test of concurrently performing distinct tasks associated with math and memory, and were independently scored on memory recall and math verification accuracy.
Participants were asked to remember a series of several letters that were interspersed with 12 math problems in which an equation and possible solution were presented for verification. They indicated whether the solutions were true or false, and were asked to recalled the order of the letters as they had been offered.
Thirty-two participants who failed to correctly verify at least 80 percent of the math problems were culled from the analysis.
Overall the final results reflected that individuals who chronically multitask are often those who are the least capable of multitasking effectively. Based on the negative correlation of exam results and inflated self-assessments of skill, researchers were able to determine the people who multitask the most tended to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, and overconfident of their multitasking abilities.
Nearly 70 percent of participants rated themselves as above-average multi-taskers, though given the overall results this was statistically impossible.
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