A good deal of past studies have dispelled the myth of multitasking in humans by demonstrating that our perception of being focused on a number of separate tasks at the same time is actually just our attention jumping from one thing to the next at great speed.
But what about the impact of such erroneous beliefs on actual performance? To figure that out, the authors of a new study published in the journal Psychological Science conducted as many as 32 individual experiments involving a total of 8,242 participants.
In a lab-based study, Shalena Srna of the University of Michigan, Rom Y. Schrift of the University of Pennsylvania, and Gal Zauberman of Yale recruited 162 participants and asked them watch and transcribe an educational video from Animal Planet.
Participants in the first group were led to believe that what they were going to do consisted of two separate tasks, namely – transcribing and learning, while the other group was instructed to perform a single task designed to gauge their writing skills.
Interestingly, results have shown that believing in the reality of multitasking (at least as far as the study design can be said to track it) improves cognitive performance – the first group significantly outperformed their fellow participants on a subsequent comprehension quiz, wrote more words per second, and transcribed more accurately.
Next, the researchers performed a number of more subtle experiments, for instance, asking participants to complete two word puzzles shown on the same display, but either visually separated, giving the illusion of belonging to different studies, or presented as a single task.
Here again, participants induced to see the puzzles as separate tasks actually scored better than their peers. The findings were then replicated across 30 experiments in which participants received monetary rewards based on their performance.
The last experiment, which replicated the word puzzle study under lab conditions, demonstrated that participants who thought they were multitasking were simply exerting more cognitive effort to stay engaged, as suggested by greater average pupil dilation, which the researchers measured using eye-tracking technology.
According to Srna, the perception of multitasking could be related to our hectic lives which force us to juggle many different activities to meet the demands on our time. “We find that multitasking is often a matter of perception that helps, rather than harms, engagement and performance. Thus, when we engage in a given activity, construing it as multitasking could help us.”