A small group of people have an extraordinary ability to multitask and can yak on cell phones without affecting their driving skills, says a new study from University of Utah.
These individuals - described by the researchers as "supertaskers" - constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.
The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review
This finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone - the study confirms that the vast majority cannot - but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers' extraordinary performance.
"According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," says Watson. "Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we'd probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row."
The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areasbraking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.
As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.