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You Are Not a Supertasker

People who multitask the most are also the worst at it.

Let's start with some statistics that make no sense:

A large, nationally representative survey found that 89% of Americans agree that "sending text messages or emails while driving is distracting, dangerous, and should be outlawed." In the same survey, 66% of respondents who knew how to text message (this, by the way, eliminated most of the respondents over 55) reported texting while driving.

Folks, that is some serious hypocrisy within the texting crowd. Unless, of course, those 66% think they are supertaskers.

Just what is a supertasker? This term was coined in a new study that is likely to give a shot of courage to exactly the people who need it least. Psychologists at the University of Utah -- inspired by paradoxical stats like the ones above -- were interested in finding out whether anyone actually can talk on a cellphone and drive at the same time, unimpaired.

200 adults (age s 18-43) participated in a driving simulation. The simulation mimicked ordinary traffic -- every now and then, something required them to slow down to avoid hitting the car in front of them. This was no "gotcha" simulation like we had back in driver's ed -- you know, where a child flies out of nowhere and lands on your windshield, or weather conditions suddenly turn from sunny to sleet in less time than you can say, "What season is this?"

At times, the participants focused fully on driving, at other times, they were also holding a cellphone conversation. 97.5% of participants -- and let's be honest, that would probably include you and me -- were substantially worse drivers when on the phone. The other 2.5% did the same or better when multitasking. (And no, they weren't dangerous drivers to begin with who couldn't get any worse.)

The University of Utah researchers who discovered these supertaskers seem to know that their new study is likely to be used by some individuals to justify dangerous habits. They conclude their scientific report by saying, "In fact, some readers may also be wondering if they too are supertaskers; however, we suggest that the odds are against them." This is an excellent reality check.

Nevertheless, research has consistently shown that most people are not fans of reality when it comes to estimating their own abilities. We tend to overestimate our skills. And, in a cruel twist, the less ability you actually have, the more you think you do.

This common cognitive bias, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, was first formally reported in 1999 by psychologists at Cornell University. These researchers found that most people overestimate their abilities in many domains, including humor, grammar, and logic. The effect is most pronounced in people who have the least skill; for example, those with a test score in the12th percentile would, on average, estimate themselves to be in the 62nd percentile.

In contrast, people who actually are above average are less likely to rate themselves so highly. Because they know more, they doubt themselves more. They know what it means to be really great -- unlike those whose skills are so poor, they can't recognize competence in others or their own lack of ability. The Cornell psychologists Dunning and Kuger concluded, "Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."

Although Dunning and Kuger haven't tackled texting while driving yet, another recent study suggests the same effect is in play for multitasking. Researchers at Stanford University found that the people who multitask the most are also the worst at it.

This is not good news, people.

The Stanford researchers gamely recommend in their report, "If chronic multitasking behavior is more frequently engaged in by individuals least able to cope with multiple input streams, then behavior change may confer particular benefits to these individuals, as they would have to deal with fewer distractors." Uh, yeah, and the rest of us could breathe a sigh of relief, too, if they put down their cell phones and concentrate on the road.

So go ahead and audition for American Idol even if you can't sing - there's not a whole lot at stake in that overestimation of abilities. But when it comes to tasks that carry a serious risk of accident, injury, and death, I'd say being defensively pessimistic is the way to go.

Studies cited:
1. Watson JM, Strayer DL. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multi-tasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. 2010 (in press). Free full study report pdf available here.

2. Kruger J, Dunning D. Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999 Dec;77(6):1121-34. Abstract:

3. Ophir E, Nass CI, Wagner, AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2009; 106: 15583-87. Free full study report pdf available here.

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