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March 31, 2010

The few, the proud, the "supertaskers"

Posted: 01:16 PM ET

Many studies say people cannot drive as safely while they talk on a mobile phone.

A recent report from the University of Utah doesn't dispute that, but it does suggest that a very small portion of the population - about 2.5 percent of us - fit into a category researchers call "supertaskers."

These outliers are able to do two things at once - talk on the phone and drive, for instance - without their performance declining for either task.

"Our results suggest that there are supertaskers in our midst: rare but intriguing individuals with extraordinary multi-tasking ability," psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer write in the report, titled "Supertaskers."

"These individual differences are important because they challenge current theory that postulates immutable bottlenecks in dual-task performance."

To get the results, the psychologists put 200 people in a driving simulator and tested their ability to react to traffic and braking cars while solving math problems and word games on a hands-free mobile phone.

Before you begin insisting that you, too, are a "supertasker" who can juggle multiple phone texts while eating, combing your hair and hurtling down the highway at 65 mph, heed this warning from the authors:

"Some readers may also be wondering if they too are supertaskers; however, we suggest that the odds of this are against them," they write.

While many people consider themselves adept multi-taskers, many psychological tests show that people do not function as well when their attention is split. However, in the future, as technology makes "supertasking" a more beneficial trait, people may be able to rewire their brains to be up to the challenge, they write.

The authors also reference several distracted driving reports, including one estimate from the National Safety Council that says 28 percent of all car crashes in the U.S. are caused by people who are using cell phones to talk or text.

[via NYTimes Bits blog]

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Filed under: distracted driving • mobile phones • multi-tasking • texting


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