Multi-Task Supers: What’s so Special about These People?

There is a glut of evidence that shows divided attention leads to decreased performance. Using a cellular phones and texting while driving have been particularly hot news topics, one of our own bloggers posted on this recently (link). But even more recently several news outlets (Nat. Geo., Time, MSNBC) have run articles about a new study showing a small group of people that can ACTUALLY multi-task without performance detriments.

Who are these Supertaskers? and what’s so special about them? Strayer had this to say about this specialness during one interview:

There is clearly something special about the supertaskers. Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference.

Watson & Strayer 2010

Jason Watson and David Strayer, both of the University of Utah, have published extensively on divided attention and specifically divided attention while driving in their souped up simulator.

Dividing attention can be accomplished by asking participants to use cell phones  (hands-free, or hand held), text message, or for this particular experiment, complete a concurrent operation (O-Span) task. In the O-span task, participants are required to verify simple mathematical operations while remembering familiar words at the end of the operation (e.g. “Is (2*2) + 1 = 4? BOX”). Each participant completed both tasks, driving and O-span, separately and then again concurrently.

Their results are consistent with the established effect of divided attention, but what the authors point out is that there is a small group of participants (2.5%) that do just as well in the Divided Attention condition as they do in the Undivided Attention task.

Supertaskers have a strikingly remarkable ability to successfully perform two attention demanding tasks that over 97% of the population cannot perform without incurring substantial costs in performance.

And the finding isn’t spurious, a Monte Carlo simulation provided corroborating evidence.

The Bigger Questions

The bigger question this study raises has to do with the underpinnings of these super attentional abilities. Strayer alluded to “multi-tasking regions of the brain” and “genetics” in the quote from above, but personally I think this is just a popular press answer, especially since the study of a “multi-tasking area of the brain” is in infancy (link), and who knows about a genetic component…

What is nice about this study and others recently is that the individual is returning to psychology. While the nomothetic approach in psychology is clearly useful, more idiographic approaches should not be ignored.

-Posted by Tyler

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