By Dylan Walsh
The word “multitasking” first arose in 1965, in reference to using a single computer to simultaneously carry out two or more jobs. As computers became more ubiquitous, the idea of multitasking drifted into the realm of human affairs: we answer emails in meetings, we scan Twitter while streaming a movie, we play video games while chatting with friends. Being a multitasker is a point of pride for many, implying mental agility and exemplary productivity.
The problem is that multitasking, at least for humans, doesn’t work. “We know from the psychology literature that multitasking is bad for you,” says Gal Zauberman, a professor of marketing at Yale SOM. Research shows that we can’t really do two things at once. We’re actually switching our attention back and forth between the two tasks—and we perform worse at both.
On the other hand, Zauberman notes, people enjoy multitasking; they like to think of themselves as multitaskers because of what it connotes. For Zauberman and two colleagues, Shalena Srna at the University of Michigan and Rom Schrift at the University of Pennsylvania, this raised an intriguing prospect: could the illusion of multitasking be spun to positive ends?
“We know that when people are geared up for a task, they’re more engaged,” he says, “and so they are more likely to focus and do better at it.” If people simply perceive what they’re doing as multitasking, instead of a single complex task, could this perception improve their performance? The answer, in the right context, is yes.
In one study, Zauberman and his colleagues recruited people to watch a video from Animal Planet’s “Shark Week,” then split the participants into two groups. One group, the “multitaskers,” was told that they would work on two tasks concurrently: a learning task, which centered on what they learned from the video, and a transcribing task, which required them to transcribe the voiceover from the video. The other group performed exactly the same tasks, but it was framed as a single activity: watching and transcribing the video. The experiment concluded with a surprise, multiple-choice quiz about the content of the video.
Participants assigned to the multitasking group performed the work better in all dimensions: they transcribed more words, they were more accurate in their transcriptions, and they performed better on the quiz. “The most fundamental finding is that when you take the exact same activity between these two groups you find that those who believe they are multitasking are more engaged and perform better than those who believe they’re doing a single task,” Zauberman says.
Zauberman and his colleagues ran a total of 32 experiments to confirm this effect. In two studies, they even used eye-tracking equipment to deduce, through pupil dilation, engagement with a task, providing a measure of engagement that was more objective than participants’ self-reports. The team then performed a meta-analysis of all the experimental results. Their findings remained unchanged: when people believed they were multitasking they were more focused and performed more ably.
“I was amazed at how consistent the effect was,” Zauberman says. Often, he notes, the emergence of a subtle psychological effect relies on a very specific experimental paradigm. “But here, over and over and over again, across many different designs, the effect showed up, which allows us to be fairly confident that what we claim to be happening is in fact happening.”
This work fits squarely in line with much of Zauberman’s other research studying the ways in which engagement with a task can influence the outcome. For example, he has found that taking pictures, by causing us to engage more deeply with an experience, can make that experience more enjoyable.
In this case, the perception that we are multitasking helps engage us with the work we’re doing, and so we carry it out with greater focus. But Zauberman offers a cautionary note: “It’s really important that readers do not get confused and assume that multitasking is beneficial,” he says. “Doing multiple distinct tasks at one time is still not a good thing and it will not lead to greater performance and satisfaction. I don’t want these results to push people toward multitasking.”
Indeed, in Zauberman’s experiments, the subjects weren’t really multitasking at all. The tasks they performed were designed to be neatly aligned with one another: watching and transcribing, for example, or performing two word puzzles side-by-side. But when we do multitask in ordinary life, the two tasks—say, watching a movie and reading a book—are often very different in their cognitive demands.
“How close or far the nature of one task is from another could have a big effect on the outcome,” Zauberman says. “In all of our experiments, they were reasonably close, but it’s critical to understand how the components of each task moderate the effects that we found.”