People are good at doing one thing at the time, and most people are not so good at rapidly switching between tasks. This situation occurs, for example, when you are cooking.

For example, there are multiple tasks to do when preparing for a dinner. There are multiple dishes that require your attention. Usually, you cannot cook them one by one, because if you would do that, the first dishes would be cold by the time you would be finished with the last one! Instead, people typically attend multiple dishes at the same time, such as on the one hand stirring in some boiling milk and at the same time cutting vegetables.

Some people manage to this while also holding a mobile phone between their shoulder and head, have a phone conversation, and look after their kids!

The first study about rapidly switching between multiple tasks was published in 1927 by the American psychologist Arthur Jersild. This was, obviously, well before the time of computers, and like in Stroop's experiment, stimuli were printed on paper, and participants had to go through lists of items. In the case of Jersild's study, participants got a sheet of numbers. In one condition, participants had to always add numbers, and in another condition they always had to multiply numbers. In a third condition, people had to alternate adding or multiplying numbers. He found that when people need to rapidly switch between adding and multiplication, people are less efficient then when they just can focus on applying the same task (e.g., just addition or just multiplication). You could say that people are just better at doing one task at the time than in multi-tasking.

Gender differences

Many people think that women are better in multi-tasking than men. There is not much research on this topic, but a recent study by Stoet and colleagues showed this (follow this page for an update about this in October 2013).

Do it yourself

In the demonstration, you will first do two simple tasks separately. That is easy. Then you will have to mix them, and the task gets a lot more difficult.

Reading material

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Creative Commons Licence
The material on this webpage is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. For more information and queries, please email Dr. Gijsbert Stoet, Gijsbert (dot) Stoet (at) glasgow (dot) ac (dot) uk