Being distracted — multitasking — can lead to better decisions

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One of the many bits of folklore masquerading as scientific truth theses days is that being totally focused on one thing at a time is always the best way to work. An accompanying myth is that people are “bad” at multitasking or simply can’t do it at all. Note that those making these claims often offer no evidence at all, or if they do it is some sort of soft science, like people’s self-reported distractibility after spending time switching from one task to another.

And it also disregards a great deal of research to the contrary. Jason M. Watson and David L. Strayer at the University of Utah reported in “Supertaskers: Profiles In Extraordinary Multitasking Ability” on their work, where they tested 200 subjects in a controlled fashion, and they determined that 2.5 percent of the group could in fact drive in a difficult car simulation while conversing on the phone — this is the important part — without significant loss of ability of the individual tasks. The “conversing on the phone” wasn’t trivial conversation: It was a complex set of behaviors called OSPAN tasks, like remembered lists of items while performing mathematical calculations.

The authors state, emphatically:

“Supertaskers are not a statistical fluke. The single-task performance of supertaskers was in the top quartile, so the superior performance in dual-task conditions cannot be attributed to regression to the mean. However, it is important to note that being a supertasker is more than just being good at the individual tasks. While supertaskers performed well in single-task conditions, they excelled at multi-tasking.”

This means that there are some of us who can drive and talk on the phone safely. And this is not just the ability to do these two specific things together but the capacity for multitasking itself.

Let’s assume for a moment then that successfully multitasking is possible and is a normal human trait, like spatial reasoning or musical ability. As such, people’s capabilities would be distributed along a bell curve, with some people — the supertaskers — out at three sigma from the mean, having the ability to perform two tasks (and maybe more?) at once with no loss of capacity. Others would have lesser capabilities.

Note also that people could improve their lot, becoming better at multitasking, since the human mind is plastic. We are all born innumerate, for example, but after a dozen years of schooling most of us have learned how to add together fractions of different denominators calculate when the train leaving from Chicago going 70 miles an hour would meet the train coming from New York going 50.

Some new research adds a different kind of support for multitasking: it appears that being distracted by a smaller task can help people make better decisions about a larger one, because we continue to consider it unconsciously while working on the distraction.

Shilo Rea, Carnegie Mellon Brain Imaging Research Shows How Unconscious Processing Improves Decision-Making

“This research begins to chip away at the mystery of our unconscious brains and decision-making,” said J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory. “It shows that brain regions important for decision-making remain active even while our brains may be simultaneously engaged in unrelated tasks, such as thinking about a math problem. What’s most intriguing about this finding is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task.”

For the study, Creswell, recent CMU graduate James K. Bursley and Northeastern University’s Ajay B. Satpute presented 27 healthy adults with information about cars and other items while undergoing neuroimaging. Then, before being asked to make decisions about the items, the participants had to complete a difficult distractor task — memorizing sequences of numbers — to prevent them from consciously thinking about the decision information.

The results included three main findings. First, the team confirmed previous research demonstrating that a brief period of distraction — in this case two minutes — produced higher quality decisions about the cars and other items. But did this effect occur because the distraction period provided an opportunity for the brain to take a break from decision-making and then return to the problem with a fresh look? Or alternatively, does the brain continue to unconsciously process decision information during this distraction period? This research supports the latter unconscious processing explanation.

When the participants were initially learning information about the cars and other items, the neuroimaging results showed activation in the visual and prefrontal cortices, regions that are known to be responsible for learning and decision-making. Additionally, during the distractor task, both the visual and prefrontal cortices continued to be active — or reactivated — even though the brain was consciously focused on number memorization.

Third, the results showed that the amount of reactivation within the visual and prefrontal cortices during the distractor task predicted the degree to which participants made better decisions, such as picking the best car in the set.

“We all face difficult problems we need to solve on a regular basis,” Creswell said. “Whether it’s buying a new car, finding a new apartment to rent, or seeking out a new dating partner on social networking sites. This study provides some of the first clues for how our brains process this information for effective problem-solving and decision-making.”

Note that the study group that was asked to focus on the car-buying decision and answer it quickly did poorly, because there were many variables having to do with the car selection: models, options, kinds of seat covering. A second group that was allowed to take a longer time fared poorly as well. The third group, the one intentionally distracted by a different but less-complex task and working at the same length of time as the second group, did better than either of the other two groups.

The bottom line? Not all multitaskers are equal, and multitasking doesn’t always degrade performance, even when people are unaware they are multitasking.

So the next time someone starts going on about the purity and clarity of single-minded focus, remember that the human mind is an emergent phenomenon, the artifact of many semi-independent centers in the nervous system. Their interactions and cross-influences are not consciously available to us. You can wisely ignore most advice that is based on the premise that the human mind is best wielded as a laser beam, tightly focused, and never allowed to roam free.

Creswell’s work shows that our best thinking might occur when we are distracted or procrastinating and undertaken by reasoning outside of our control, operating in the back room of our mind. These ideas seem to appear independently of thinking, almost as a feeling, or an emotional conviction. As Blaise Pascal once said,

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

It doesn’t sound as poetic to say “the visual and prefrontal cortices have their reasons” instead of Pascal’s famous use of “the heart,” however.