March 28, 2010
Elite Few Can Multitask Driving And Cell Phone

Are you a member of the 2.5% cognitive elite who can talk on the cell phone while driving without suffering reduced driving ability?

SALT LAKE CITY, March 29, 2010 A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.

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.

Is there a correlation here with IQ? Or is this due to a different form of cognitive ability? Since the supertaskers were better at single tasks this suggests a more general ability.

Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals' performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.

Possibly these people think so rapidly that they are able to do both tasks fast enough that performance degradation doesn't occur due to switching between the tasks.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 28 11:54 PM  Brain Performance


Comments
Brett Bellmore said at March 29, 2010 3:36 AM:

Given that driving is a specific task related to mobility, and people have been walking and talking at the same time for a very long time, I suspect multitasking involving mobility related activities may not be quite the same as general multitasking. I mean, who hasn't had the experience of getting engrossed in something while on a walk, and suddenly realizing you've gotten someplace with no memory of the trip? But some part of your brain was keeping you from bumping into trees, or tripping over stuff. Whereas with general multitasking, you usually remember doing both things.

These people may have just more successfully assigned driving to that region of the brain.

Lono said at March 29, 2010 8:01 AM:

I have a genius level IQ and I, personally, do not drive well while talking on the phone so I doubt there's a significant positive correlation - other than the fact that, yes, I do find I multitask at a higher level than people who think a bit slower than myself.

My higher IQ leads me to be more analytical when calculating risk - and I have found it to be an unacceptable risk to add unecessary distraction to my daily commute - so I, of course, do not know the upper limits of my performance in this regard - and would be foolish to persue maximizing it.

Perhaps "supertaskers" are accomplished at only superficially attending to multiple tasks at once - putting minimal effort to any of the multiple tasks they perform in parrallel - however this in itself probably still does require faster communication between neurons - at least in some specific centers of the brain.

I must admit I am skeptical of these "supertaskers" abilities - not having encountered a solid example of such an individual in the wild - but, certainly, if their performance at thoughtful multitasking is as significant as they claim - then they should probably be actively recruited for specialized jobs that could take better advantage of their unique phenotype.

Chris Collingwood said at March 29, 2010 2:29 PM:

It's just a matter of training and practice. Just as when first driving takes more of your limited conscious attention* then through practice the skill automates. Thus freeing attention for maybe a conversation with a friend in the car. *Conscious attention is limited to between 7 and 9 chunks. See "The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two; Some limits on our capacity for processing information".

Kelly Norton said at March 29, 2010 2:42 PM:

It's all about muscle memory and practice. This kind of thing is taught in Keith Code's motorcycle racing books:

"Each person has a fixed amount of attention while riding a motorcycle. This is represented as a $10 bill worth of attention. If you spend five dollars of it on one aspect of riding, you have only five dollars left for all the other aspects. Spend nine and you have only one dollar left, and so on."

http://www.amazon.com/Twist-Wrist-Motorcycle-Roadracers-Handbook/dp/0965045013/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b

I'd like to know what the driving history of the 2.5% were and if this test also threw in emergency situations.

CosmicConservative said at March 29, 2010 2:47 PM:

Hmm... this is interesting. What I would like to know is what the driving record is of those supposed "super-taskers." I bet you would find that most of them have stellar driving records, with virtually no accidents and only a speeding ticket or two. The reason I suspect that to be the case is because I have not noticed any decline in my driving while talking on the phone because I treat driving as if it were the most dangerous thing I do in the course of my day, and that means I do everything in my power to keep my focus on the road even if my phone rings, a song I don't like comes on the radio, or I spill a drink in my lap. For some reason my brain seems to accept the concept that a phone conversation, wet pants or unpleasant song are not worth dying for.

Robert Arvanitis said at March 29, 2010 2:48 PM:

The US military has studied human cognition in great detail, developing ways of understanding and accelerating decision making processes.

"OODA" loops (observe, orient, decide, act) are of special importance for combat pilots, who make instant life and death decisions while absorbing overwhelming quantities of data. See for example http://oodacycle.com/OODA.aspx

cheeflo said at March 29, 2010 2:51 PM:

I've found that, while driving, I am more distracted if I'm holding the phone to my ear. If I am using an ear bud, I'm not distracted at all. It's more like carrying on a conversation with a passenger.

Milo said at March 29, 2010 2:54 PM:

Does talking to the passenger in the right seat count as "multitasking"? Hummm, or yelling at the kids in the back seat? Hummmmmm, or tuning your radio? Or inserting a CD or a tape or lighting a cigarette or finding your toll ticket or digging for change for that toll?
I could go on.
It seems to me that with an earpiece, talking on the cell phone should be no problem. Without an earpiece with one hand on the wheel and the other holding the cell phone, well then, maybe they have a point. But it would be about dexterity. Well, maybe not as how can one shift, (manual transmission), and drive?
Maybe, it's the dialing or texting while piloting that's the problem.
Perhaps, people are just getting stupid. (Most likely)

Wilbur Post said at March 29, 2010 2:59 PM:

I can guarantee you that 100% of the drivers think they are in the 2.5%.

Greg F said at March 29, 2010 2:59 PM:

I have in excess of a million miles of driving. I have to agree with Chris Collingwood, it becomes automatic with practice. A few years back I got broadsided by a woman who had run a stop sign. I ended up going on a side lawn between a parked car and the house with only a foot to spare on each side. The next thing I remember is seeing the back corner of the house go by. The last question the police officer asked me was how I managed to miss both the parked car and house. I don't think IQ is significant here, experience is.

CosmicConservative said at March 29, 2010 3:03 PM:

Milo, based on my observation of other drivers who use the phone, I don't think it's a dexterity issue, it's literally an attention issue. I've been in a lot of cars with drivers talking on the phone, and the behavior I see when they do so pretty much frightens the cr*p out of me. I seen them get emotional and gesticulate wildly. I see them totally lose track of where other cars are on the road, and they tend to focus with a laser-like gaze directly in front of them, as if checking their mirrors never even crosses their mind. Frequently I see talkers looking up or down as if lost in thought.

I really do think that it's a concentration and focus issue. I know many, many people who if you are at the table and they are talking to someone, you literally have to touch them or hit them with something to get their attention. I don't know if that's the majority of people or not, but one thing I do in a hurry when I'm driving is get the heck away from anyone I see talking on the phone.

Baby M said at March 29, 2010 3:06 PM:

Is that "driving while holding a phone in one hand" or "driving while talking to someone using a Bluetooth or other handsfree system"? There's a difference. Talking on a phone using a handsfree system is probably no more distracting or dangerous than talking to the person in the passenger seat. Trying to drive with your hands full is a whole 'nother thing entirely; probably far more dangerous.

I insisted my teenaged son drive a stick shift--that means both hands and both feet are engaged in operating the controls, requiring him to pay more attention, and he can't be futzing with the phone or trying to text while driving.

CosmicConservative said at March 29, 2010 3:08 PM:

Wilbur, LOL, you're right, but then again, 2.5% of those drivers are right too.

Lummox JR said at March 29, 2010 3:09 PM:

Actually Milo, I do have to say there's more to it than just the difficulty of holding the teeny tiny cell phone while handling the wheel. I believe when the Mythbusters tested this they did a hands-free test as well as a hands-on test and found that concentrating on the conversation could itself cause a problem. I know from my own experience I have difficulty concentrating when I'm talking to a passenger. Trip memory takes over and I'll autopilot to a destination I didn't necessarily intend, or miss a turn. I doubt that's uncommon.

As difficult as maintaining a conversation or handling a cell phone can be on their own while driving, the difficulty of texting has to be an order of magnitude worse than both combined. I'd like to see fines upped to extraordinary levels for texting while driving, possibly even with an automatic license suspension. No kidding. Also I'm only half-kidding when I say we should criminalize texting in movie theaters.

Jonathan said at March 29, 2010 3:11 PM:

I have a genius-level IQ and have no trouble driving while talking on the phone, though I've had to throw it down on a few occasions to react to the erratic (and illegal) moves of incompetent drivers. I'm a very poor multi-tasker but it doesn't take much talent to maintain the limit and stay in your lane. I wouldn't drive aggressively while talking on the phone.

CosmicConservative said at March 29, 2010 3:11 PM:

Baby M, I don't know how this experiment was done, but there have been several studies that show that talking on a phone is just about equally distracting for most people whether they use a handset or an earpiece.

I have my doubts that it's actually "multi-tasking" that is the key, but maybe it is.

Hucbald said at March 29, 2010 3:14 PM:

I'm in that 2.5% for sure, and am shocked - and saddened... ok, and a bit frightened - that the percentage is so small. Not sure about IQ being the contributing factor though, as IQ is many categories of aptitude bundled into a single score. Perhaps abstract reasoning, mechanical reasoning, and spatial relationship comprehension would be the relevant factors. If so, you'd expect that females who could do it would be significantly less in number. Unfortunately, the story cites no breakdown by sex. BTW, I'm a solo guitarist, and I can play and people watch at the same time too (And as long as the piece isn't monumentally difficult, converse). When I mention this to other guitarists, most of them think it's something special, but a surprising number report that they can do that too. Since musicians tend to, well, "rock" in the three categories I mentioned, I think that's the best place to look first.

Previously I was of a mindset that phone/driving laws were idiotic, now I'm not so sure. Perhaps a test for a license endorsement is in order.

Thursday said at March 29, 2010 3:27 PM:

Because I am an amazingly brilliant person of awesomeness, I suffer no noticeable reduction of my driving ability while talking on the phone.
However, I suspect this may be related to why I can't remember conversations held while driving.

Caller: "...and so I need you to pick up some milk and a bottle of Aspirin on your way home."
Me: "Mm-hmm. That's nice."
Caller: "Did you call Eric back? We still need to tell him about Friday."
Me: "That's good. Woah, is that a dead squirrel?"
Caller: "What?"
Me: "What?"

Hooray for visual input priority; nature's way of selecting idiots like me to survive - though it doesn't much help my popularity with the female types.

Callan said at March 29, 2010 3:35 PM:

...fighter-pilots routinely "multi-task" at a level 10-times as complex as any car-driver talking on a cellfone. Yet those pilots are well able to constantly communicate on the radio(s), while flying tree-top level formation at 500 mph... and routinely performing another half-dozen critical cockpit tasks simultaneously.

Yeah, most people aren't fighter-pilot quality-- but simply talking on a cellfone while driving is child's-play compared to what fighter-pilots have been safely doing for many decades.
So there is nothing especially dangerous about the act of talking while operating a vehicle.

Safe cellfone-driving is well within the capabilities of most automobile drivers. It's merely a simple matter of discipline and some self practice {..as others have noted above}.

The fundamental problem is that most drivers lack awareness of the inherent dangers of automobile driving. Statistically, for the vast majority of Americans, driving is THE most dangerous activity they ever engage in... but most hop in a car with only a vague awareness of any physical danger -- and drive with a casual attitude, easily subject to distractions.


Sean said at March 29, 2010 3:40 PM:

Hell no.

I can't walk and talk, let alone drive and talk.

And truth be told, I'm not that great a driver to begin with.

Milo said at March 29, 2010 3:47 PM:

The whole truth be told, I don't have a cell phone so I can't/don't really know. I must agree with those that say talking on the phone degrades driving ability as I see it everyday. (Or maybe they are just lously drivers with or without cell phones) Exactly why it degrades, I don't know, but, like some of you, I've learned to stay far away from them.
I also ride a motorcycle anytime I can and have for many years. That teaches you patience as well as situational awareness. I can almost read driver's minds. I watch their mirrors mostly. I wish all drivers had to take motorcycle courses in order to get licenses to drive cars.
But that's another story. Sorry.

Da Coyote said at March 29, 2010 4:00 PM:

Hmmm, any of us out there who have piloted a single-seat fighter find it ...er...interesting to know that there are people out there who cannot talk and drive. Of course, as I age, that ability is reduced, but if you really want to see multitasking, check out a cockpit video of a single-seat pilot (of anything, helicopter, Cessna, fighter, etc.) multitasking whilst doing a weather approach.

JTHC75 said at March 29, 2010 4:38 PM:

No, but I'm part of the cognitive elite that recognizes the danger of driving while speaking on the phone.

In all seriousness, I've never noticed a degradation in my driving abilities the handful of times I have answered a call, but then how could I objectively determine whether my abilities were degraded or not? I could be suffering some imperceptibly small reduction in driving abilities, and that margin could make the difference in a dangerous situation. My sense is that unless you've been tested, the safe bet is to put the phone down. I would think that far too many people overestimate their abilities, kind of like the ridiculous numbers of people who claim to be able to drive while drunk or buzzed.

"Is that "driving while holding a phone in one hand" or "driving while talking to someone using a Bluetooth or other handsfree system"? There's a difference. Talking on a phone using a handsfree system is probably no more distracting or dangerous than talking to the person in the passenger seat."

I think that studies have shown there is little difference between talking on the phone or talking through Bluetooth. Both of these are way more dangerous than talking to a passenger, and I think it has to do with the fact that when you're on the phone you're not getting the same feedback that you would from a passenger. Your passenger will likely stop talking and raise a shout if an 18-wheeler is about to enter your lane; the person talking to you on Bluetooth, not so much.

BruceC said at March 29, 2010 4:46 PM:

Lono said at March 29, 2010 8:01 AM:

I have a genius level IQ...and would be foolish to persue (sic) maximizing it.

What was that someone said about removing all doubt...genius?

PJC, what you said!

JKB said at March 29, 2010 4:59 PM:

The real impact on multitasking between vehicle operation and talking is content. If the content of the talk requires significant mental focus, that starts to drain attention away from the operation. The trick is to know when to drop the conversation because it is draining your operational focus. A quick mention of when your arriving or simple routine information doesn't draw off the multitasking. But if you are trying to sort out a complex directions, make someone understand, etc., you quickly lose focus. Don't even mention a deep emotional conversation like an argument.

As for pilots or mariners who've been operating and conversing for awhile, the conversations most exclusively are related to the operation. If you get in a mixed up radio comes trying to sort out a traffic situation, it is easy to lose your situational awareness fortunately, ships and aircraft aren't generally operating in environments that have such rapidly changing requirements as a vehicle operating in urban traffic, e.g., changing lights, sudden appearance of traffic, close restricted maneuvering. Easier to slip in and out of situational awareness on an open road freeway than down by the mall with soccer moms rushing home for the kids.

rastajenk said at March 29, 2010 5:05 PM:

If the people tested for this project are driving a simulator, then they know they're being tested and may try harder to focus, whether they're in the 2.5% or not. And the nature of the conversation will play a big part of it.

People that claim "hands-free" conversations are safer than hand-held ones are nuts. Either way, you're more focused on the person on the other end than the person in the lane next to you. I don't need to read a study about that, I see it a hundred times a day. Just because you don't cause an accident doesn't mean you're driving in a responsible manner.

DEWEE said at March 29, 2010 6:10 PM:

CosmicConservative, how can you put down the people driving with cellphones when it seems all you do while driving is watch people talking on cellphones, instead of paying attention to driving?

DocinPA said at March 29, 2010 7:25 PM:

There is a direct correlation between instrument flying and this skill. The trick is to CONSTANTLY monitor all major parameters in sequence, never dwelling too long on any one item and immediately correcting deviations as they start to occur, preferably not long after they've developed.

TheOldMan said at March 29, 2010 8:34 PM:

I have a hard time just plain driving...

J. Bradley said at March 30, 2010 5:00 AM:

To test how much of driving is automatic behaviour, let them put these supertaskers in right hand drive cars with the duty to drive on the left hand side of the road - without handy medians to keep them on the proper side - and see how they fare. After 2 hours of this, then put them back in the normal US setup and see how they fare. This ought to be more fun.

Charles Collins said at March 30, 2010 6:11 AM:

Professional drivers are generally better at multi-tasking than non-professionals. Truck drivers, cabbies, Formula Racers. Is this really a super cognitive ability, or just that driving requires less concentration from them?

Lono said at March 30, 2010 8:13 AM:

PJC and BruceC,

I'm sorry you all get so intimidated by a fact that was wholly relevant to this conversation.

(It seems Densans get quite the dopamine dump out of finding mispelled words on the internet - good for you!)

I have no doubt that many of the people who regularly participate on this blog have genius level IQ's - although they probably do not possess infallible memory or unerring spelling ability.

I actually was aware I had mispelled that particular word - but I was curious who would use it as a vector of attack - usually it is those who - regardless of their raw intellectual ability - seem to have low self esteem - something that a narcissist as myself cannot fully relate to.

I would encourage you both to "pursue" more productive uses of your time than trolling science blogs.

Lono said at March 30, 2010 8:27 AM:

JKB,

An excellent few points - exactly!

And this is the biggest reason I do not fell interested in improving my ability to talk on the phone while driving - for it would lead to me reducing the quality of one - for the sake of the other - and I am not interested in limiting myself to mindless small talk while on the road - I suffer that enough as it is almost every day!

I don't even often like to converse by phone very often anyways - I find that people have a much harder time keeping up with my conversations when I cannot see visually when I am losing them. When I see them in person - I can see when I need to slow down and use smaller words - or if they are a lost cause entirely!

Brett Bellmore said at April 2, 2010 12:35 AM:

I'm certainly not a supertasker; After three months of chemo, I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time. Though I'm told that will improve after the chemo is over.

Lono said at April 2, 2010 9:01 AM:

Brett,

I'm sorry to hear about your need for chemo - and the havoc it can wreak on your body - but your insight, intellect, and sense of humor still seems to be in top form!

My God bless you during these trials and bring you a speedy recovery!

I know I speak for all the regulars here when I say our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult journey.

Brett Bellmore said at April 2, 2010 7:20 PM:

I don't chew gum while composing my comments. ;)

According to the oncologist, my Pet scan showed me clear of the lymphoma, which has a 95-99% cure rate with chemo. I'm just undergoing the last two cycles of the standard six, to be on the safe side. Considering that if it comes back, I get bone marrow extracted, check into a hospital, get subjected to chemo that completely kills off my immune system, (Alas, the B-cell lymphoma is an immune system cancer, the chemo for it inherently attacks the immune system.) and then they try, let me repeat that, "try" to reestablish it by transplanting back in my frozen marrow. Considering all that, I surely do want to be on the safe side.

Fortunately I seem to be extremely tolerant to this particular chemo regimen. Made the decision to keep going quite easy. The support is appreciated, though.

Brett Bellmore said at April 2, 2010 7:34 PM:

Anyway, my point is that I think there are certain forms of multitasking which are unrepresentative, because we have brain regions dedicated to them. It may be that the supertaskers have done a better job of assigning the driving task to a distinct brain region, so that they AREN'T continually context switching to simulate parallel processing, but are really engaged in parallel processing.

Maybe this could be taught?

better joe than john said at April 3, 2010 1:08 AM:

I am without a doubt the dumbest genius in the world and find that by calculating risk and necessitating the proper position of my car based on 20 cars ahead and behind me that I am able to work on my cold fusion research remotely with colleagues while interpolating anecdotal evidence. Imagine what one with just average genius leveled iq could accomplish.

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