Few Drive Well While Yakking on Phone, Yet 1 in 40 'Supertaskers' Who Can Do Both

Mar 29, 2010
Jason Watson, a University of Utah psychologist, negotiates cybertraffic in a driving simulator used to study driver distractions such as cell phones and testing. While many people think they can safely drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, Watson's new study shows only one in 40 is a "supertasker" who can perform both tasks at once without impairment of abilities measured in the study. Credit: Valoree Dowell, University of Utah

A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.

These individuals - described by the researchers as "supertaskers" - constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a while operating a simulator without noticeable impairment.

The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

This finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone - the study confirms that the vast majority cannot - but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers' extraordinary performance.

"According to , these individuals ought not to exist," says Watson. "Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we'd probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row."

The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas—braking , following distance, , and math execution.

As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.

For those who were not supertaskers and who talked on a cell phone while driving the simulators, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with simulated traffic while driving. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell 3 percent.

However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved 3 percent.

The results are in line with Strayer's prior studies showing that driving performance routinely declines under "dual-task conditions" - namely talking on a cell phone while driving - and is comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.

Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals' performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.

"There is clearly something special about the supertaskers," says Strayer. "Why can they do something that most of us cannot? may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned."

Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to have extraordinary multitasking ability.

The current value society puts on multitasking is relatively new, note the authors. As technology expands throughout our environment and daily lives, it may be that everyone - perhaps even supertaskers - eventually will reach the limits of their ability to divide attention across several tasks.

"As technology spreads, it will be very useful to better understand the brain's processing capabilities, and perhaps to isolate potential markers that predict extraordinary ability, especially for high-performance professions," Watson concludes.

Explore further: Our relationship with God changes when faced with potential romantic rejection

More information: The study is available online by clicking here: www.psych.utah.edu/lab/appliedcognition/publications/supertaskers.pdf

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3 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2010
"their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment."

i.e. Their driving abilities are so bad, it just can't get worse :)
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2010
"...cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems)."

I registered just to comment on this study. Who is memorizing words or doing math problems while driving? Another baseline should be added. Remove the phone from the study, then retest again, still having people memorize words and solve math problems.

Also, "...They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator..."

Should it not be more than 2 things? Simply talking on the phone and driving would be 2 things but adding memorizing and math solving adds additional tasks.

This isn't even my field and I can do a better job. Sadly seems like propaganda.
3 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2010
"and following distances increased 30 percent" Umm, that's a good thing. Don't most people intentionally increase their following distance for safety's sake when having to deal with something else while driving?
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2010
gottr: Who is memorizing words or doing math problems while driving?

Many casual conversations require both. Time based calculation for your schedule as well as remembering names, date/time and places are all common.

L-Jouce: "and following distances increased 30 percent" Umm, that's a good thing.

This is rational compensation for the increased braking time: "it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes". It's good that many people tend to compensate for the lack of concentration, but I'm not sure if people do that for real. I'm sure anyone of the subjects has guessed their driving abilities are being tested thus the results may be biased.

1 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2010
Vlasev: There are entirely too many variables to take into consideration to properly obtain a real life study and conclusion of whom is a "super tasker".
not rated yet Mar 29, 2010
It may be true that my ability to drive and have a conversation is impaired relative to both tasks. However I always have a priority for driving.

In those situations where my attention to my driving needs to increase (more traffic, stop lights, urban driving, etc.), I just let all the impairment fall on my ability to carry on a phone conversation, the lower priority task. I don't really care if I can do both equally well, I just need to be able to drive equally well.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2010
My guess is that this study is pretty much on the money.

I've been in situations where, for instance, I had to reference a co-workers entries into the database while they were interacting with someone over the phone, and the results were rarely pretty.

Likewise, I've double-checked my own work under similar conditions, and found plenty of errors.
And, of course, we've all had the misfortune of a near collision, or witnessed the same by some idiot talking or texting while driving their "Mobile Office" on the freeway.

This whole notion of mutlitasking flies in the face of reality, and has always, at least to me, smacked of an urealistic demand to increase productivity. I blame MTV.
not rated yet Mar 30, 2010
I've been using a radio or telephone while driving for more than 40 years....

However, there's a big difference between exchanging pleasantries (or asking for backup - semi-retired rent-a-cop) than sharing a recipe. The "trick" is to drop your speed and drive very defensively. And don't do it much :D ....

The biggest problem with the current phones v.s. the hardware I used to work with is the quality. You FORGET you're out there on the road!

Short answer is that it's not a good idea to do it....

not rated yet Apr 05, 2010
It's really funny, when i'm driving and chatting to someone who's in the car (i.e. not on a cellphone), my speech hilariously slows down when a difficult road-situation comes up. Like an old record being slowed down :)

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