Sunday, May 25, 2014

Most People Cannot Multitask, But a Few Are "Supertaskers"

While you are still likely to see "multitasking" as a preferred skill on job announcements, the science has been relatively clear - almost no one can multitask well. Granted, there a few people who are better than average.

But there is new research to suggest that maybe 1-2% of people can be supertaskers; no matter how many tasks they are juggling, they tend not to make mistakes.

Hmmm . . . I wonder how many of these people have ADD?

Multitask Masters

Posted by Maria Konnikova
May 7, 2014 | The New Yorker

In 2012, David Strayer found himself in a research lab, on the outskirts of London, observing something he hadn’t thought possible: extraordinary multitasking. For his entire career, Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, had been studying attention—how it works and how it doesn’t. Methods had come and gone, theories had replaced theories, but one constant remained: humans couldn’t multitask. Each time someone tried to focus on more than one thing at a time, performance suffered. Most recently, Strayer had been focussing on people who drive while on the phone. Over the course of a decade, he and his colleagues had demonstrated that drivers using cell phones—even hands-free devices—were at just as high a risk of accidents as intoxicated ones. Reaction time slowed, attention decreased to the point where they’d miss more than half the things they’d otherwise see—a billboard or a child by the road, it mattered not.

Outside the lab, too, the multitasking deficit held steady. When Strayer and his colleagues observed fifty-six thousand drivers approaching an intersection, they found that those on their cell phones were more than twice as likely to fail to heed the stop signs. In 2010, the National Safety Council estimated that twenty-eight per cent of all deaths and accidents on highways were the result of drivers on their phones. “Our brain can’t handle the overload,” Strayer told me. “It’s just not made that way.”

What, then, was going on here in the London lab? The woman he was looking at—let’s call her Cassie—was an exception to what twenty-five years of research had taught him. As she took on more and more tasks, she didn’t get worse. She got better. There she was, driving, doing complex math, responding to barking prompts through a cell phone, and she wasn’t breaking a sweat. She was, in other words, what Strayer would ultimately decide to call a supertasker.

About five years ago, Strayer recalls, he and his colleagues were sorting through some data, and noticed an anomaly: a participant whose score wasn’t deteriorating with the addition of multiple tasks. “We thought, That can’t be,” he said. “So we spent about a month trying to see an error.” The data looked solid, though, and so Strayer and his colleagues decided to push farther. That’s what he was doing in London: examining individuals who seemed to be the exception to the multitasking rule. A thousand people from all over the U.K. had taken a multitasking test. Most had fared poorly, as expected; in the London lab were the six who had done the best. Four, Strayer and his colleagues found, were good—but not quite good enough. They performed admirably but failed to hit the stringent criteria that the researchers had established: performance in the top quartile on every individual measure that remained equally high no matter how many tasks were added on. Two made every cut—and Cassie in particular was the best multitasker he had ever seen. “It’s a really, really hard test,” Strayer recalls. “Some people come out woozy—I have a headache, that really kind of hurts, that sort of thing. But she solved everything. She flew through it like a hot knife through butter.” In her pre-test, Cassie had made only a single math error (even supertaskers usually make more mistakes); when she started to multitask, even that one error went away. “She made zero mistakes,” Strayer says. “And she did even better when she was driving.”

Strayer believes that there is a tiny but persistent subset of the population—about two per cent—whose performance does not deteriorate, and can even improve, when multiple demands are placed on their attention. The supertaskers are true outliers. According to Strayer, multitasking isn’t part of a normal distribution akin to birth weight, where even the lightest and heaviest babies fall within a relatively tight range around an average size. Instead, it is more like I.Q.: most people cluster in an average range, but there is a long tail where only a tiny fraction—single digits among thousands—will ever find themselves.

In the first controlled study of the supertasker phenomenon, in 2010, Strayer and Jason Watson, a cognitive neuroscientist, asked two hundred participants to complete a standard driving test that they had previously used to illustrate the perils of multitasking. In a simulator, each person would follow an intermittently braking car along a multi-lane highway, complete with on and off ramps, overpasses, and oncoming traffic. Their task was simple: keep your eyes on the road; keep a safe difference; brake as required. If they failed to do so, they’d eventually collide with their pace car.

Then came the multitasking additions. They would have to not only drive the car but follow audio instructions from a cell phone. Specifically, they would hear a series of words, ranging from two to five at a time, and be asked to recall them in the right order. And there was a twist. Interspersed with the words were math problems. If they heard one of those, the drivers had to answer “true,” if the problem was solved correctly, or “false,” if it wasn’t. They would, for instance, hear “cat” and immediately after, “is three divided by one, minus one, equal to two?” followed by “box,” another problem, and so on. Intermittently, they would hear a prompt to “recall,” at which point, they’d have to repeat back all the words they’d heard since the last prompt. The agony lasted about an hour and a half.

As expected, over ninety-seven per cent of the participants failed. They were just fine if they had to drive without worrying about math or word memorization, and they could memorize and do math all right if they didn’t also have to drive. But when the two tasks combined, their performance plummeted. Hidden in the averages, though, were five people, three men and two women, whose performance patterns didn’t change a bit, no matter how many things they were asked to take on. When they were just doing a single task, be it driving or completing the attention-span test, they were already exceptional. When they began to multitask, that exceptionality became all the more apparent. They performed as well as—and, in some cases, better than—when they’d been unitasking. By 2012, after Cassie and her other supertasking U.K. colleague had been tested, Strayer’s team had identified nineteen supertaskers in a sample of seven hundred.

What makes the supertaskers able to do what they do? Are most of us doomed to a unitasking future? Once he confirmed that the phenomenon was real and not a statistical or a laboratory fluke, Strayer, naturally, wondered exactly that. “When you see these people perform at this level, you wonder what makes them be able to behave the way they can. What can they tell us about attention?” he says. Until quite recently, that question was difficult to answer. There simply weren’t enough supertaskers around, and the cost of finding them, bringing them to the lab, and running them through expensive simulations was prohibitive. Now, however, a new test of supertasking ability—this one to be administered online—should make examining the problem much easier.

Teaming up with psychologists from the University of Newcastle in Australia, Strayer and his team at the University of Utah have recently been working on a Web version of the supertasker challenge. This time, you’re not driving; you’re acting the part of a bouncer in a club, asked to let in cool people and keep out uncool ones. To make your decisions, you have to rely on both visual and auditory cues, managing constantly opening doors as quickly as you can to keep the club exclusive. The researchers are about to submit a paper explaining their initial results: out of the approximately two hundred and fifty individuals who took the test as part of the initial study, only seven appear to perform at supertasker levels. (I took the test and failed completely. I was in agony by round five, only to realize that I had fifteen more to go.)

The prospect of an Internet test for supertasking is enticing. “Now that we have the Internet version, and everyone who wants to can sign up and test themselves, we can have thousands of people testing,” Strayer says. “It takes a lot of time to find them, but now we will finally have the numbers we need.”

So what are we going to learn from them, exactly? For one, Strayer thinks, that the ability is probably genetic to a large extent. You are either born with the neural architecture that allows you to overcome the usual multitasking challenges, or you aren’t. Already, with their admittedly limited sample, Strayer and his team have found that supertaskers exhibit different patterns of neural activation when multitasking than most of us. There is less activity in those frontal regions—the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex—that have been implicated in multitasking and executive control in the past. Supertasker brains, in other words, become less, not more, active with additional tasks: they are functioning more efficiently. “Their brains are doing something we can’t do,” Strayer says. With additional participants, not only can the Utah team more deeply examine these initial findings but they can also supplement them with genetic work, something that is impossible to do without a very large base sample; that is, a big enough chunk of the population that can serve as the basis of comparison. (Cassie, as it turns out, isn’t simply an √©lite multitasker. She is an outlier in her chosen profession: when he met her, she was training to try out for the British Olympic team in cycling. Strayer believes that supertaskers may naturally gravitate toward fields that reward those who can juggle multiple inputs exceptionally well—the high-end restaurant chefs or football quarterbacks of the world.)

The flip side, of course, is that, for the ninety-seven and a half per cent of us who don’t share the requisite genetic predisposition, no amount of practice will make us into supertasking stars. In separate work from Stanford University, a team of neuroscientists found that heavy multitaskers—that is, those people who habitually engaged in multiple activities at once—fared worse than light multitaskers on measures of executive control and effective task switching. Multitasking a lot, in other words, appeared to make them worse at it. (In his earlier work, Strayer didn’t find that drivers who were used to talking on their phones while driving performed any better on multitasking measures than those who weren’t. Laboratory practice didn’t help improve their test scores, either.) “In these particular tasks, you can’t get much of a practice effect,” Strayer says.

The irony of Strayer’s work is that when people hear that supertaskers exist—even though they know they’re rare—they seem to take it as proof that they, naturally, are an exception. “You’re not,” Strayer told me bluntly. “The ninety-eight per cent of us, we deceive ourselves. And we tend to overrate our ability to multitask.” In fact, when he and his University of Utah colleague, the social psychologist David Sanbomnatsu, asked more than three hundred students to rate their ability to multitask and then compared those ratings to the students’ actual multitasking performances, they found a strong relationship: an inverse one. The better someone thought she was, the more likely it was that her performance was well below par.

At one point, I asked Strayer whether he thought he might be a supertasker himself. “I’ve been around this long enough I didn’t think I am,” he said. Turns out, he was right. There are the Cassies of the world, it’s true. But chances are, if you see someone talking on the phone as she drives up to the intersection, you’d do better to step way back. And if you’re the one doing the talking? You should probably not be in your car.

~ Photograph: C. J. Burton/Corbis.
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