People Who Suck At Multitasking Don’t Realize They Suck

And that’s a big problem when it comes to distracted driving.

Back in September, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York had established “texting zones” along various highways. The intention behind the campaign was first-rate–reduce distracted driving by creating a safe place to pull over and finish a text exchange–but the concept itself was flawed because it assumed drivers would do more than just recognize what they were doing (texting while driving). They also had to recognize they were bad at it.


The matter of how our brains handle multitasking is separate from how we expect our brains to handle multitasking. When it comes to distracted driving (and any other important tasks performed alongside others) this expectation is key. If people think they’re bad at multitasking when they’re actually good at it, then no harm no foul. But if people think they’re good at multitasking when they’re actually bad at it, all sorts of problems might arise.

Unfortunately, recent evidence suggests a lot of the latter. Last year, a group of psychologists from the University of Utah found that people with the most inflated views of their own multitasking ability also tended to be those most likely to use a phone when behind the wheel. In other words, the types of people who’d need texting zones most would be the same types least likely to realize it.

That the worst multitaskers don’t recognize they’re the worst was reinforced in an even more recent study led by psychologist Jason Finley of Washington University in St. Louis. Finley and collaborators recruited 69 test participants to the lab to perform two tasks at once. One involved visual tracking, the other auditory processing–a little like the twin tasks people have while behind the wheel.

The visual tracking task required participants to keep the tip of a cursor inside a moving target on a computer screen. The auditory task required them to listen to a series of numbers and indicate when one was repeated, a task whose difficulty varies depending on how far back the repetition must be noted. After practicing the tasks individually, test participants predicted how they would perform when doing them at the same time.

To Finley’s surprise, the participants made pretty conservative predictions. They did suffer on the tracking task when also doing the memory task–performing about 5% worse, on average. But they predicted they would do about 19% worse before the test took place, the researchers report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, which means they expected themselves to do worse than they actually did.

“Most people did seem to understand that doing two things at once is going to be harder, and in fact most of them overestimated the cost of multitasking,” Finley tells Co.Design. “They thought they would do worse than they really did, which is not what we expected.”


That result alone seemed encouraging. But when Finley’s team analyzed how well participants performed relative to others in the study, the findings took a negative turn. Those whose performance on the visual tracking task suffered the most while doing the auditory memory task failed to predict the largest costs of multitasking. In other words, participants didn’t know how they stack up as multitaskers–a big problem for those who actually rest toward the bottom.

“The people most impacted by multitasking didn’t correspondingly give the biggest decrement [or cost] prediction,” says Finley. “What this suggests is that although everybody seems to understand that generally doing two things at once is going to cause their performance to go down, relatively people may not have insight about how much their performance will suffer compared to other people.”

Together the recent results fit with a broader cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In simple terms, the effect says that people who are way below average at something tend to think they’re above it. Most of the time it doesn’t really matter if people misperceive their own abilities. When those same people are whizzing by texting zones on their phones, however, it does.

“It could be that a lot of the risk in society comes from those people who are actually the most susceptible to multitasking decrement but don’t realize it,” says Finley. “So if they don’t realize how susceptible they are but they still choose to do multitasking anyway, those could be the minority of drivers out there taking calls when they shouldn’t be.”


About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014)


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