Supertasking is the new buzzword for an old concept: multitasking. Now that the latter term has come solidly under the gun from scientists such as David Meyer and laypeople such as myself (see Killing the Multitasking Beast), researchers have come up with a new word to describe a rare phenomenon. It appears there is a small percentage of the populace that can indeed do two things at one time. The clincher? They perform better when their attention is divided than when it is not.
A recent article in Time magazine entitled "Supertaskers: Why Some Can Do Two Things at Once" lays out part of the research in smooth journalistic style. After reading Alice Park's piece,however, I felt compelled to refer to the primary source, as I am always curious about what was not actually reported. Here's what I found.
The University of Utah recently announced the findings of a new study that examined multitasking behavior in 200 students with a median age of 23.6. They simulated driving while talking on a cell phone (and did not fail to mention the phones they used were from Sprint PCS). What they found was that 2.5% of those who performed dual tasks actually excelled when multitasking. These so-called supertaskers performed in the upper quartile when performing a single task so they were already considered 'special'. Add another task, however, and their performance increased notably. That means they actually thrived under split-attention conditions.
The paper underscores the dangers of driving while speaking on a cell phone (even hands-free) for the mere 97.5% of mankind that cannot supertask. In fact, they even take pains to quote the National Safety Council, which estimates that 1.6 million accidents and fatalities on US highways were caused by drivers using cell phones (National Safety Council, 2010), 200,000 of which involved crashes with cell phone users who were texting. The total number of accidents and crash-related deaths due to cell phone usage while driving translates to 28%.
Researchers Jason Watson and David L. Strayer go on to say that "inattention blindness associated with cell phone conversations makes drivers unaware of their own driving impairments." That's research-speak for "Hey, I am not even aware of my unawareness while gabbing with my pals. I am special. I can do this!", which is reminiscent of a smoker or alcoholic who says "I can quit any time I want, really. I can handle it!"
The researchers also admit that, in their experience, people tend to overestimate their ability to multitask: "[O]ur studies over the last decade have found that a great many people have the belief that the laws of attention do not apply to them."
But they do.
The danger I see with the interpretation of this study is that those cell phone junkies who've got to get their fix even behind the wheel will use it to label themselves the 'supertaskers' they clearly aren't. They will conveniently forget the study's warning that "[i]t may be that supertaskers excel at multi-tasking at the expense of other processing abilities." They will continue to believe the law of attention does not apply to them. Also, did they have to mention the brand Sprint PCS in their findings as a condition for using the company's equipment? If yes, that's product placement at its finest, posing the question of who actually funded the study in the first place.