Research Highlights - January 2019

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Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once.  But new research published in the journal Psychological Science, shows ironically, that merely believing that we’re multitasking can boost our performance by making us more engaged in the tasks at hand.

Multitasking is often a matter of perception and it can even be thought of as an illusion.  But, regardless of whether people actually engage in a single task or multiple tasks, making them perceive this activity as multitasking is actually beneficial to performance.

That’s surprising, because evidence suggests that humans are actually incapable of paying attention to multiple tasks at the same time; we may think that we’re multitasking, but we’re actually switching back and forth between tasks.

Importantly, our perception of multitasking is flexible. We might perceive sitting in a meeting as a single task, but we may actually be engaged in two tasks: listening to the person speaking and taking notes.  When we are clothes shopping, we could view it as looking for the best deals or we could see it as simultaneously browsing the clothing racks and comparing competitors’ prices.

The researchers wanted to find out whether shifting our perceptions about multitasking could change how we engage with the tasks at hand.

In a lab-based study, 162 participants watched and transcribed an educational video from Animal Planet. Half of the participants believed they’d be completing two tasks, a learning task and a transcribing task; the other half believed they’d be completing a single task testing their learning and writing abilities.  In other words, both groups completed the exact same activities, the only difference was their belief about how many tasks they were completing at one time.

The results were revealing: Participants who believed they were multitasking

  • transcribed more words per second,
  • wrote a greater number of words accurately, and
  • scored better on a comprehension quiz.

The researchers saw a similar pattern of results in an online note-taking study: Participants who believed they were multitasking took higher-quality notes with more words compared with those who believed they were...

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