Multitasking actually does boost performance. Wait, what?

A new study re-assesses multitasking.

  • Multitasking may have some value after all — as a useful illusion
  • A new study shows that simply believing you're multitasking helps performance
  • Try this for yourself and see what happens

Remember the days when you'd meet someone who'd humble-brag about their multitasking abilities? And remember the satisfying feeling of schadenfreude when studies came out saying that doing a bunch of things at once was really just a way of doing several jobs poorly at the same time? Well — oh joy — here's another study saying that multitasking actually does boost productivity. Or at least believing that you're multitasking does.

The study, recently published in Psychological Science, is called "The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance," and it was concerned with finding out whether or not having a sense that you're doing two things at once leads to better work output. It encompassed 32 studies and a total of 8,242 participants. The authors are University of Michigan's Shalena Srna, University of Pennsylvania's Rom Y. Schrift, and Yale's Gal Zauberman.

Transcription vs. transcription + learning

One experiment described in the study saw two groups of subjects asked to transcribe the narration of an Animal Planet video from Shark Week. The job was described to one group as a "learning task," the implication being that they were to absorb the video's content as they transcribed it. For the other group, it was just a transcription job.

After the experiment, the researchers tallied how both groups did, and found that the "learning" group transcribed more words, did it faster, and did it more accurately.

One explanation that comes to mind is that the multitasking group, listening more carefully for learning purposes, was better positioned to glean the meaning of transcribed words and phrases and self-correct accordingly. Certainly, they were more engaged than the transcription-only group.

Second, while the study concludes that this was an experiment assessing the illusion of multitasking, was it really an illusion? The multitasking group was trying to learn (Task 1) as they transcribed (Task 2). For the other group, it was just a listening/typing assignment. At yet the same time, it's fair to ask if this was true multitasking when the two jobs were so closely interrelated. This is not like talking on the phone while editing, for example — it's more like holding a nail while you hit it with a hammer.


Word puzzles

The researchers conducted a variety of online and lab tests in which subjects solved pairs of word puzzles, including word-finding grids and anagrams in need of unscrambling. Multitask subjects were shown two puzzles on a same-color background to suggest that they were to be solved together, and for some subjects this was reinforced with instructions telling them that they were in fact being tested on multitasking. Other subjects saw the puzzles displayed on different backgrounds to visually separate them, and some were also told that the puzzles belonged to separate studies.

Once again, those subjects who believed themselves to be multitasking did a better job.

The physiological mechanism

The authors of the study were naturally interested in seeing if there was physiological evidence of the different ways multitaskers and mono-taskers might be approaching their assignments.

115 volunteers performed the puzzle tests listed above in the researchers' lab as their eye movements were observed using SMI RED-m eye-tracking equipment. The rig captured their eye movements and pupil dilation.

It was observed that pupil dilation was consistently greater in multitasking subjects. While the suspicion is that these subjects were more engaged and thus taking in more information at once, the study notes that it's hard to be sure: "Given the correlational nature of any mediation analysis, one should be cautious with causality interpretations between pupil dilation and performance. In particular, participants' pupils might have been dilated because of happiness and excitement from finding more words (i.e., reverse causality)."

So, is multitasking exonerated? Long live multitasking? Sort of.

The study's authors note that "multitasking is often a matter of perception," and they feel they've demonstrated that "the exact same activity may or may not be perceived as multitasking." In the end, the study doesn't let actual multitasking off the hook: "These findings do not suggest that multitasking is superior to single tasking. Voluminous research demonstrates that working on more than one task is detrimental to performance." In any event, literal multitasking is impossible, anyway — we're serial creatures, so what seems like doing multiple things at once is really just us switching back and forth between them quickly.

Still, the authors do conclude that the illusion of multitasking can increase performance through greater engagement. The authors suggest that a person might in fact increase the quality of their work output with a simple perspective-switch of "separating an activity into its components and merely creating the perception of multitasking." They mention, by way of example, that reading their study requires reading text and looking at graphs, and that even these two small role switches could qualify as multitasking if one wanted to see them the way.

We might add another two: reading this post while scrolling up and down.

You can try this little mind trick out for yourself and see if it helps you get more done, and better. Not while you're driving, though.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.