Multitasking might be an illusion, but it is a helpful one. A new study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that merely perceiving one or several activities as multitasking is enough to boost performance.
An established body of neuroscientific research suggests that the ability to multitask is nothing but a myth. Since the mid-1990s, a series of experiments have shown that rather than actually doing several things at once, the human brain can only switch between tasks.
And task-switching comes with its costs. Some older studies have shown that even when the tasks we switch between are predictable, or we have done them hundreds of times before, it still takes longer for people to complete them, compared with doing the same task repeatedly.
Functional MRI studies have also backed the claim that multitasking is a myth. For instance, a study that examined the brain activity involved in switching between two tasks found a 29 percent and 53 percent decrease, respectively, in brain activity when the participants were asked to switch tasks.
New research, however, suggests that this collection of studies does not tell the whole story. The new results indicate that even if multitasking is a myth or an illusion, this very illusion can boost performance.
Shalena Srna of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who led the research, explains, "Multitasking is often a matter of perception or can even be thought of as an illusion."
"Regardless of whether people actually engage in a single task or multiple tasks, making them perceive this activity as multitasking is beneficial to performance."
Self-perceived multitaskers perform better
The study's lead researcher also explains that people's perception of what constitutes multitasking is flexible. We may consider sitting in a meeting as a single task, or we may think it consists of two tasks if we listen to the speaker while also taking notes.
So, Srna and colleagues set out to examine whether changing our perceptions about what constitutes multitasking affects how we engage with the task. They did so by reviewing 32 studies that summed up the perceptions of 8,242 participants.
In one of these studies, researchers asked 162 participants to watch and transcribe an educational video. The researchers divided the participants into two groups — they told one group that they would be completing two tasks, i.e., learning and transcribing, and told the other group that they would be engaging in a single task that tested their learning and writing skills.
People who believed they were multitasking transcribed more words per second and did so more accurately, as well as faring better on a comprehension quiz. Further studies replicated these findings.
For instance, an online note-taking experiment found that participants who thought they were multitasking took more and better notes. An additional set of 30 puzzle-solving experiments that involved financial rewards also showed that self-perceived multitaskers found more correct answers per second compared with their single-tasking counterparts.
Engagement is key
Srna and team were also curious about the mechanisms underlying the findings. They hypothesized that the results were down to a higher level of engagement and set out to measure this.
So, they designed a laboratory version of the puzzle experiments in which they used eye-tracking devices to measure the participants' pupil dilation while they worked.
The test found that the multitaskers' pupils dilated the most, which suggested to the researchers that these participants put in greater mental effort to stay engaged.
Overall, the results do not indicate that people should start multitasking to increase performance, explain the researchers, but they do suggest that perceiving any activity as multitasking influences a person's performance.
"In today's society, we constantly feel like we are juggling different activities to meet the demands on our time, both at work and at home. So it feels like multitasking is everywhere," says Srna.
"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."