The Masters of Multitasking

Posted on May 23, 2014

Photo: flickr

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.

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Category(s):Workplace Issues

Source material from New Yorker


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