In “Multitask Masters,” Maria Konnikova reports David Strayer’s ongoing research on the phenomenon of successful multitasking. Strayer, a psychology professor at University of Utah, refers to these rare and exceptional people who excel at multitasking as ‘supertaskers’. Konnikova talks about how Strayer and his team’s initial findings about attention and their real life experiment with drivers using cell phones while driving led them to believe that multitasking is not only unfeasible, but can result in uninvited perils. However, Konnikova adds, in 2009, Strayer and his team unexpectedly came across a successful and flawless supertasker who defied their perception about multitasking and drove them to conduct further investigation.
To further examine the supertasker phenomenon, Konnikova asserts, Strayer and Jason Watson, a cognitive neuroscientist, collaborated on a controlled study in 2010 where they tested 200 people for multitasking abilities. They instructed the participants to follow certain auditory instructions and respond to math problems while simultaneously operating a car simulator. Konnikova reports that 97% of the participants failed the test, while only 5 people showed supertasking abilities. According to Konnikova, 1000 people from all across UK had appeared for a multitasking test of significant difficulty level – out of which only 2 were recognized as supertaskers. Konnikova conveys Strayer’s idea of the existence of these rare supertaskers who can manage complex tasks with better productivity. She also talks about Strayer’s comparison of multitasking ability with IQ – with the majority of people having average results with very few outliers. She goes on to say that by 2012, Strayer and his team finally had 19 supertaskers out of the 700 subjects examined.
To look at the supertasking phenomenon on a larger scale, Konnikova adds, Strayer and his team collaborated with psychologists from the University of Newcastle, Australia to develop an online version of the multitasking test. According to Konnikova, the time-based online test – where one has to be a bouncer in a club – stresses visual and auditory stimuli. The researchers’ initial results, according to Konnikova, identify a minority of 7 supertaskers out of the 250 tested. According to her, the notion of an online multitasking test is exciting in that it provides more data due to its economy and accessibility.
Konnikova goes on to explain Strayer’s supposition that supertasking abilities are being bestowed upon few supertaskers by nature (genes), and not nurture. She discusses Stanford University’s findings that for the majority of people who are not born multitaskers, multitasking is not a possibility and it can lead to reduced performance and task switching delays. Strayer and his team’s research on supertaskers, Konnikova reports, suggests that supertaskers’ brains function differently from other people’s brains: they show reduced neural activity with multitasking while increased efficiency with addition of tasks. Konnikova reports a study conducted by Strayer and his coworker David Sanbomnatsu, a social psychologist at the University of Utah, which showed how 98% of people who claim to be multitaskers in reality deceive themselves. Strayer himself, Konnikova adds, does not claim to be a supertasker, and believes that supertaskers exist, but quite rarely.