A new study published January 23 in the medical journal PLOS One has found that whether you engage in multitasking has more to do with your personality than your actual ability to multitask.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Utah, found that those who multitask tend to have risk-taking, sensation-seeking and impulsive personalities, which lead them to be easily distracted and find it hard to focus on one thing at a time. Fully 70% of these people think they are good at multitasking. However, objective testing showed that they are not good at it, and in fact people with more focused personalities, who do not multitask, are actually much better at it.
The study suggests that the better people think they are at multitasking, the worse they really are at it.
“People don’t multitask because they’re good at it,” David Sanbonmatsu, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah and lead author of the study said in an interview with NPR. “They do it because they are more distracted. They have trouble inhibiting the impulse to do another activity,” Dr. Sanbonmatsu said.
The new study was published online January 23, 2013 in the scientific journal PLOS One.
The study adds to the growing scientific literature showing that multitasking does not work, and in fact can be dangerous — such as when people attempt to use cell phones or text message while driving. “Research has shown that that driving performance is significantly degraded by cell phone conversations. In fact, the National Safety Council estimates that a minimum of 24% of all accidents and fatalities on U.S. highways are caused by distracted drivers,” the study authors write.
Separately, citing earlier study, David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, previously told NPR, “If you’re driving while cell-phoning, then your performance is going to be as poor as if you were legally drunk.”
Much has been written about why multitasking does not work. In his book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, molecular biologist John Medina, wrote:
Yet, people — including caregivers — continue attempting to multitask. Why? This was the question the University of Utah researchers attempted to answer in the new study.
The New Study; Method
In the study, the researchers examined the relationship between personality and individual differences in multitasking behavior and ability.
As part of the study, the researchers asked 310 college undergraduate students at the University of Utah (176 female and 134 male), who ranged in age from 18 to 44, to complete a series of questionnaires and tests. The students were asked to rate “how often do you use your cell phone while driving?” on a 5-point scale, ranging from “never/rarely when I drive” to “every time I drive.” They were also asked to report the percentage of the time they are on the phone while driving, If they do use their cell phone while driving.
The participants were then asked to “rank their multi-tasking ability relative to that of other college students on a percentage scale in which 0 indicated I’m at the very bottom, 50 indicated I’m exactly average, and 100 indicated I’m at the very top.” In addition, they “ranked their abilities relative to other adults in the general population on the same percentage scale,” and also reported “how much difficulty do you have performing multiple tasks simultaneously” relative to other college students on a 5 point scale, ranging from “much less difficulty than average” to “much more difficulty than average.”
These questionnaires providing self-assessments of multi-tasking ability were followed by two personality tests and a skill test to determine the actual proficiency of the students at performing two competing tasks at one time.
The two personality tests measured the students’ tendencies for “general impulsiveness,” including “attentional impulsiveness, motor impulsiveness, and non-planning impulsiveness” (as measured by the Barratt Impulsivity Scale), and for “sensation seeking,” including “boredom susceptibility, disinhibition, experience seeking, and thrill and adventure seeking” (as measured by the Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS)).
The students’ actual multitasking abilities were then measured through a skill test which required them to remember random strings of letters while solving math problems.
The researchers found that the participants who reported multitasking the most in real life scored high on the personality scales for impulsiveness, including attentional impulsiveness and being easily distracted, and for sensation seeking, risk-taking, and thrill and adventure seeking.
However, these same people — the impulsive risk-takers — who tended to multitask the most, actually proved to be much worse at performing competing tasks at the same time than people who rarely multitasked in real life (and who correspondingly scored low on the impulsiveness, distractedness, and risk-taking personality scales).
Nevertheless, the multitaskers, like 70% of the study participants, evaluated themselves as being excellent or better than others at multitasking, even though objectively the multitaskers tested much worse at it.
Discussing similar results of previous research, the authors explained, “These findings suggest that people may generally overestimate their ability to multi-task relative to others and that the persons who may be most willing to engage in multiple attention demanding tasks are those who are the most overconfident about their capabilities.”
Similar to previous studies, the results of this study showed that it was the non-impulsive, non-risk-taking participants who reported not using phones while driving who actually turned out to be better at multitasking. They were better able to maintain focus and successfully perform the competing tasks.
Citing previous research, the authors wrote, “Thus, research suggests that the persons who most frequently multi-task may be those who are the least cognitively equipped to effectively carry out multiple tasks simultaneously.”
“People sometimes think multitasking means greater productivity,” Dr. Sanbonmatsu, the principal study author, said. “That’s not what the findings in the literature say at all. A lot of times people multitask because they can’t focus on the task that’s most important to them.”
Explaining why people with high “sensation seeking,” risk-taking personalities tend to multitask the most, the authors said, in background referring to previous studies, “People may often choose to multi-task because it is more interesting and challenging, and less boring than performing a singular task. In some instances, they may take on several tasks for the sheer enjoyment of it, even if their overall productivity suffers.”
“High sensation seekers may be especially apt to multi-task for the sake of the more varied and complex sensations that are afforded by multiple vs. singular tasks,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, because they are less averse to losses, they may be more likely than low sensation seekers to risk the costs of multi-tasking in order to heighten the enjoyableness of their experience.”
“In some instances, people may multi-task despite the potential losses of doing more because they are unable to focus on a singular task,” the authors wrote.
Nevertheless, “Impulsivity has been associated with lower executive functioning and reduced behavioral inhibition,” the authors said, citing previous studies. This may explain why those with impulsive and risk-taking personalities, who tend to multitask the most, actually are not good at it.
Dr. Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues indicate that they will conduct further research into why people continue to try to multitask — including driving while texting, even though we know it’s dangerous.
This study substantiates the mounting evidence that the claimed ability to multitask is a myth, that multitasking does not lead to greater productivity, and in fact can be dangerous — especially since it apparently seems to be performed most by those least capable of handling competing tasks.
While this study, and much of the research, has focused on texting or using cell phones while driving, the findings may have important implications for the fields of health care and caregiving, and other fields as well.
If you think you can perform exacting tasks like monitoring your loved one’s meds or blood pressure readings, or really listening to your elderly loved one talk to you, while you are performing other tasks like monitoring your smartphone or conducting work-related conference calls, perhaps you should think again. Perhaps you should objectively evaluate whether your older loved one, your work, your own well-being, or all three are suffering.
In fact, statistics show that “70% of working caregivers suffer work-related difficulties due to their dual caregiving roles.”
“Among working caregivers caring for a family member or friend, 69% report having to rearrange their work schedule, decrease their hours or take an unpaid leave in order to meet their caregiving responsibilities,” according to a study cited by the Family Caregivers Alliance.
Perhaps it is time for public policy to acknowledge that expecting family caregivers to continue multitasking their caregiving duties with other work duties is not realistic, not prudent, and not fair for family caregivers.
See related HelpingYouCare® reports on:
Johns Hopkins Health Alert Features 8 Key Strategies to Protect Your Memory (including a reference to “How Multitasking Can Harm Memory”)
See also Multitasking Takes Toll on Memory, Study Finds – NYTimes.com
See also the HelpingYouCare® resource pages on OurTimeForCare™ – Caregiver Self-Care, Stress Management, Inspiration & Humor, including:
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