Most people believe they can multitask to some degree. Most people are wrong. Although we may think we’re able to do several things at once, the truth is we’re just doing all those things badly. In almost every case, people would do better to focus their attention on one activity at a time. But are videogame players (VGP) the exception to this rule? After all, if there’s any group that can rapidly react to multiple stimuli, it’s them. Have they learned the secret to successfully dividing their attention?
To find out, Sarah Donohue from Duke University and her colleagues from Duke, Pennsylvania State University and Colby College gave proficient VGPs and non-players a series of three tasks: driving, multiple object tracking and image-search. For the first, they had to play a driving simulation game. For the second task, subjects viewed eight white dots on a screen. Four of the dots flickered a few times, and then all the dots moved around the screen like a shell game. After twelve seconds of movement, the participants had to identify which dots had been flickering. Finally, for the last challenge, subjects were given a paper ‘find the hidden object’ puzzle form a children’s magazine.
Volunteers ran through each of these three tasks either without interruption (single-task), or while answering trivia questions piped in over a loudspeaker (dual-task). The participants were instructed to do their best at the original task (for example, to complete the driving task as quickly as possible with no crashes) plus answer each question rapidly and accurately.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the VGPs were no better at multitasking than the non-players. Both groups also showed similar strategies for dealing with distraction, such as slowing down on the driving course.
By the way, why did I say that most people can’t multitask? It turns out that about one out of every forty people is a ‘supertasker’ who really can concentrate on more than one thing at a time. I’m definitely not in this group, as my family can attest when they’re trying to speak to me while I’m reading something. If you think you might be, this driving test might convince you otherwise: