Does your best friend put on makeup and eat barbecue (weird right) while driving? Do you shake your head, disbelieving and worried, when she tells you, “But I’m great at multitasking! I’ll be fine!” Could she be right?
We already know that, on average, groups that use cell phones while driving have worse driving performance than groups that are not distracted. But if there’s anything more fun than averages, it’s outliers. Watson and Strayer (2010) extended distracted driving research by looking for supertaskers, people with the extraordinary ability to multitask without a performance drop in either activity. Instead of actually driving, participants sat in a driving simulator, which tested how quickly they braked or sped back up in response to a car just ahead. Instead of having an actual conversation, participants had to answer math questions (in the form “6 + 1 = 9, True or False?) and memorize simple words (“box”, “house”, etc.) They heard the questions and gave answers with a hands-free headset.
Why not a real conversation? You might think that answering math problems and memorizing words out of context are weird ways to simulate a conversation. But this task does capture some basic elements of conversations. If you are asked a simple math question, you have to pay enough attention to do the calculation yourself (or remember it), then give the appropriate answer. The math questions stand in for normal conversation questions – “You wanted the invisible gorilla outfit for Halloween, right?” Another possible explanation: the participants were boring, and scientists did not want to talk to them.
Surprisingly, in this experiment, the rules of distracted driving did not apply to everyone. Out of 200 participants, 2.5% (five people) were supertaskers. Their performance on either driving or talking didn’t get worse when they had to do both. Of course, I’m willing to bet that if you made the task a little harder (add a third activity, or make driving or talking more complex), these supertaskers would start to fail, too. Still, it’s exciting to wonder why a scant minority can multitask much more effectively than 97.5% of us – you can learn a lot from the outliers.
Let me warn you: don’t use your cell phone while driving. Yes, this research suggests that two out of a hundred people can multitask effectively. But research also suggests that being awful at something makes you overconfident, since you lack the cognitive awareness to know just how awful you are (covered here). If you think, “Yeah! I can do this!”, then you can’t. You will accidentally kill cute animals. You will pay hefty fines. We will plaster your image on the first slide of introductory psychology classes across the nation. To make fun of you.Confident multitaskers, this is how you look to us.
Readers, what’s the most dangerous (or hilarious) example of multitasking hubris you’ve seen?
Watson JM, & Strayer DL (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17 (4), 479-85 PMID: 20702865