It's the thought that counts

The illusion that we're multitasking can help our performance.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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If you’re reading this while on the phone with your boss, you probably believe you’re multitasking. It’s an illusion. But for a particular task, in certain situations, that illusion may improve your performance.

We think of multitasking as performing tasks sufficiently complex to require more than one main cognitive operation at a time. Actually, performing those tasks requires switching back and forth. As a result of dividing our attention, we do worse on both. Even so, people like the idea of multitasking. And a group of researchers wondered whether the way people think about an activity can affect performance. “We conjectured,” says Gal Zauberman, a professor of marketing at SOM, “that because multitasking is perceived as challenging, framing an activity as multitasking might increase engagement.”

Zauberman and his colleagues ran 32 experiments with 8,242 participants. In one, participants who watched an Animal Planet video were split into two groups. They performed the same activity: transcribing the video voiceover. The group told that they would be multitasking (learning the material while transcribing the voiceover) did better on a quiz afterward about the video’s content than the group told that they were performing the single task of transcription. The studies tracked pupil dilation as a measure of engagement, showing a positive physiological response to the idea of multitasking. (The results were published in Psychological Science.)

In real life, the multitasking most of us attempt involves activities that aren’t at all related—say, watching television while doing a crossword puzzle. Zauberman offers this encouraging note. “It is the degree of engagement that enhances performance, not the attempts to perform multiple tasks at once.”

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