Sue Frantz

No, we really can't multitask: A demo

Blog Post created by Sue Frantz on Oct 16, 2017

As if cell phone use in cars isn’t bad enough, car manufacturers are building distractions into our automobiles, which I affectionately call Built-in Automotive Driving Distraction SystemsTM.

 

Automakers now include more options to allow drivers to use social media, email and text. The technology is also becoming more complicated to use. Cars used to have a few buttons and knobs. Some vehicles now have as many as 50 buttons on the steering wheel and dashboard that are multi-functional. There are touch screens, voice commands, writing pads, heads-up displays on windshields and mirrors and 3-D computer-generated images (Lowy, 2017).

 

In an attempt to save lives, I have been hammering pretty hard on our inability to multi-task in my Intro Psych course. While this topic comes up in greater detail when I cover consciousness, I also embed examples of attention research in my coverage of research methods.

 

Correlation example

After I introduce the concept of correlations, I give my students 5 correlations, and ask them to identify the correlation as positive, negative, or no correlation. One of those correlations comes from a 2009 Stanford study reported by NBC News: people who multitask the most are the worst at it (“memory, ability to switch from one task to another, and being able to focus on a task”) (“Multitaskers, pay attention -- if you can,” 2009).

 

Experiment example

In talking about experimental design, I discuss David Strayer’s driving simulation research at the University of Utah. His lab’s research is easy for students to understand and the results carry a punch. I give this description to my students and ask them to identify the independent variable and the dependent variables.

In an experiment, "[p]articipants drove in a simulator while either talking or not talking on a hands-free cell phone." Those who were talking on a cell phone made more driving errors, such as swerving off the road or into the wrong lane, running a stoplight or stop sign, not stopping for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, than those who were not talking on a cell phone. Even more interestingly, those who were talking on a cellphone rated their driving in the simulator as safer as compared to those who weren't talking on a cellphone. In other words, those talking on the cellphone were less likely to be aware of the driving errors they were making (Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Biondi, Behrends, & Moore, 2016).  

 

Class demo

When Yana Weinstein of LearningScientists.org posted a link to a blog she wrote on a task switching demo (Weinstein, 2017) to the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Facebook page, I thought, “Now this is what my research methods lecture was missing!” I encourage you to read Weinstein’s original demo once you’re done reading mine.  

I randomly divided my class into two groups. To do that I used a random team generator for Excel, but use whatever system you’d like. Weinstein does this demo with a within subjects design which, frankly, makes more sense than my between subjects design, but in my defense I’m also using this demo to help students understand the value of random assignment.  

 

One group of students recited numbers and letters sequentially (1 to 10 and then A to J). The other group recited them interleaved (1 A 2 B 3 C, etc.). In your instructions, be clear that students cannot write down the numbers/letters and just read them. That’s a different task!

 

Students worked in small groups. While one student recited, another student timed them with a cellphone stopwatch app. (You don’t have to know anything about cellphone stopwatch apps. Your students can handle it.) I didn’t bother dividing students into groups by task. In one group, there might have been three students who recited sequentially and a fourth student who recited interleaved.

 

I asked students to write down their times, and then I came around to each group and asked for those times. I just wrote the times on a piece of paper, and displayed the results using a doc camera. Almost everyone in the sequential condition recited the numbers/letters in under 6 seconds. Almost everyone in the interleaved condition took over 13 seconds.

 

In addition to talking about the independent variable (and experimental and control conditions) and the dependent variable, we talked about the value of random assignment. I had no idea who could do these tasks quickly or slowly. If 20% of them could do these tasks quickly, then random assignment would likely create two groups where the percentage of fast-task participants would be the same in each group. Is it possible that all of the fast-task participants ended up in the sequential task condition? Yep. And that’s one reason replication is important.

 

Oh. And when you’re studying or writing a paper, students, this is why you should keep your phone on silent and out of sight. If you keep looking at your phone for social media or text notifications, it’s going to take you a lot longer to finish your studying or finish writing your paper. Perhaps even twice as long.

 

And driving? As you switch back and forth from driving to phone (or from driving to Built-in Automotive Driving Distraction SystemsTM), it’s not going to take you twice as long to get to your destination. You’re traveling at the same speed, but you’re working with half the attention. That increases the chances that you will not get to your destination at all.  

 

A lot of what we cover in Intro Psych is important to the quality of students’ lives. Helping students see our inability to multitask is important in helping our students – and the people they are near them when they drive – stay alive.

 

References

 

Lowy, J. (2017, October 5). Technology crammed into cars worsens driver distraction. The Seattle Times. Seattle. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/new-cars-increasingly-crammed-with-distracting-technology-2 

 

Multitaskers, pay attention -- if you can. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32541721/ns/health-mental_health

 

Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Strayer, D. L., Biondi, F., Behrends, A. A., & Moore, S. M. (2016). Cell-phone use diminishes self-awareness of impaired driving. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(2), 617–623. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-015-0922-4

 

Weinstein, Y. (2017). The cost of task switching: A simple yet very powerful demonstration. Retrieved from http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2017/7/28-1 

Outcomes