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Attention residue and the myth of multitasking

On Behalf of | Jun 29, 2020 | Car Accidents

Many drivers invite disaster by overestimating their own skill. Whether it is driving in poor weather, driving with defective safety equipment or driving with distractions, drivers tend to assume they can “handle” the challenge with little recognition they are actually putting other drivers around them at risk.

One of the greatest fallacies is a driver justifying to himself or herself – I’m a good multitasker. Unfortunately, studies have proven over and over again that, from a cognitive perspective, there is really no such thing as multitasking. If a driver has convinced himself that he can safely operate a motor vehicle while having a complex conversation over the phone or texting, it’s simply not true.

Essentially, people understand “multitasking” to be the ability to effectively complete two or more tasks at the same time. What’s really happening, though, is individuals begin task-switching – that is, changing focus from one task to the other. When focused on one task, the other task is ignored. They are not being worked on at the same time, one task is simply paused. Unfortunately, if the paused task is essential – like driving – there can be deadly repercussions.

In fact, task-switching requires additional cognitive energy:

  • Goal shifting is the active thought process whereby an individual decides to stop working on one task in order to start working on another. A good example of this is when a phone rings while driving. The momentary pause that a driver has while he or she is deciding to answer the phone and start a conversation can be goal shifting.
  • Role activation is the mental change from the rules or context of one task to a new one. A tangible example would be a writer putting text together for a website and then switching gears to write a poem. Additionally, a driver can change from navigating a busy highway to the rules needed to send and receive text messages.

An oft-quoted Harvard study noted that people spend almost 47 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. This is often described as “attention residue.” When we move from one task to the next one, it takes time for attention – and all the cognitive factors associated with it – to catch up. In that delay, an individual’s reaction times might be hampered, and other perceptive strengths might be dulled.

It is important to focus on the task at hand – especially when the safe execution of that task is in the best interests of those around you. Other drivers, for example, might be paying attention to the road, but a distracted driver can misjudge a merge, fail to stop at an intersection or fail to recognize stopped traffic. Any of these actions can have devastating results.


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