Does believing you’re a multi-tasker improve performance?

While the “myth of multitasking” is still going strong, research has shown that we can't actually do several things at once. Our brain isn’t capable of performing various tasks in a truly simultaneous manner. Nevertheless, a study recently published in Psychological Science suggests that simply believing that we’re good at multitasking could make us more efficient. Could this “myth” have positive effects?

Whether at work or at home, we are regularly required to perform several tasks at the same time. Living in the digital age only reinforces our impression of being able to manage this “simultaneity.” For example, we can reply to an email while talking on the phone. But we know that the brain can only process one task at a time. So how can we ride a bicycle and talk at the same time? In fact, multitasking is indeed possible if an action has become automatic (unconscious). This is even more true if the tasks being performed involve different functions (motricity and language in this example). But most activities require active attention and cannot be performed simultaneously. Our brain actually switches quickly from one task to another to create the illusion of multitasking. According to Srna and colleagues, our perception of multitasking is flexible. Thus, attending a class can be considered as a single task, when in fact the student is engaged in two activities: listening and taking notes.

The authors of the present study tried to see if modifying our perception of multitasking would have consequences on our commitment (motivation) to complete different actions. To do so, the researchers recruited 162 participants who had seen an educational episode of Animal Planet. Half of them thought they were performing two tasks simultaneously: learning and transcription. The others thought they were only performing a single task: testing their learning and writing abilities. In other words, both groups carried out exactly the same tasks; the only difference was their belief about the number of tasks they were accomplishing at once.

The results show that those who thought they were multitasking transcribed more words per second and scored better on the comprehension test. Subsequently, 32 other studies (30 of which included performance-based incentives) with 8,242 participants have also shown how changing the perception of multitasking can have an effect on efficiency. It turns out that depending on our interpretation of the activity, the belief that we are multitasking can improve our concentration and our ability to carry out the task(s).

According to Shalena Srna of the University of Michigan: “We find that multitasking is often a matter of perception that helps, rather than harms, engagement and performance. Thus, when we engage in a given activity, construing it as multitasking could help us.”
Source: Shalena Srna, Rom Y. Schrift, Gal Zauberman. The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance”, in Psychological Science, Oct.2018 // Association for Psychological Science : https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/the-illusion-of-multitasking-boosts-performance.html

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