My Favorite Things: The Multitasking Myth

Posted inCreative Voices

The complexity of modern life has led to us convincing ourselves that we can do two, three, or even four (!) things at the same time.

It’s our superpower: Multitasking!

Easy, right?

You’re driving, drinking coffee, listening to a BrandBox Podcast episode, and speaking with the person in the passenger seat.

See? You’re doing four things at once!

Let’s look more closely at what’s going on.

Think about driving.

Depending on a variety of factors…weather, traffic, route familiarity…many (most?) of us have had the experience of driving somewhere and suddenly realizing that we’ve been “deep in thought” and not “concentrating” on driving. It’s like we’ve been on auto-pilot for the last ten miles!

How does that work?

Driving is a highly complex set of integrated bodily/cognitive skills. When we first learn to drive, we are acutely aware of every part of that skill set. We carefully (ie, full of care) assess our speed, the distance between ourselves and the vehicles in our immediate surroundings, what’s happening in the rear view mirror, the position of our hands on the steering wheel, and so on. We vigilantly pay close attention to all of these critical factors.

But, who is “paying attention?”

In the framework we’ve been using to understand our cognitive mechanisms, we’ve described the set of capabilities that we use to focus on a task as being the purview of The Rider. Meanwhile, the other capabilities that get us through our day without focusing on them (ie, “unconsciously”)…things like walking down the street without tripping on the curb, feeling cool spring breezes on our faces, recognizing the aroma of freshly baked bread…we’ve characterized as being the world of The Elephant.

We are unaware…not conscious…of The Elephant’s work and identify ourselves almost entirely with The Rider. Neuroscience tells us that while The Rider can consciously process approximately 40 bits/second of information, The Elephant unconsciously processes around 11 million/second. Think about that difference.

Back to driving. As we become increasingly expert at mastering the complex physical and cognitive demands of operating vehicles on modern roadways, The Elephant gradually begins to assume greater responsibility. We say that we now “don’t have to think as much” about what we’re doing. That’s actually inaccurate. We actually continue to “think” as much as we did as novices about our speed, the spacing between vehicles, or cars closing in from behind, but now, The Elephant has taken over those cognitive tasks instead of The Rider needing to do so. After all, The Elephant is designed to simultaneously monitor multiple complex information streams (those 11 million bits/second) and can do so very reliably.

This shift has two effects. First, by focusing less on driving skills, The Rider has been freed up to use its 40 bits/second elsewhere. Out of nowhere, memories start to pop into your head. Or, your passenger says something interesting that you (your Rider) have to respond to. Or, the BrandBox hosts just brought up a fascinating idea! You start talking to your passenger. The Elephant has already signaled The Rider that it has control of the “driving” part of the current situation. Second, The Elephant continues to evaluate the 11 million bits it’s processing to determine if anything new needs to be brought to The Rider’s attention. The Elephant is on duty protecting us from danger and ready to notify The Rider if something needs to be done to keep them safe.

So, The Elephant is a monitoring/early warning function that will enlist The Rider’s focus when needed. For example. You’re driving on a familiar road in clear weather, listening to a podcast, chatting with your passenger when a car in front of you suddenly stops. The Elephant recognizes the danger immediately and enlists The Rider’s entire 40 bits to take action to avoid an accident. At that moment, the coffee, the podcast and the passenger all “disappear” from The Rider’s awareness. All 40 bits are focused on whatever it will take to stay safe.

While we may have believed we were “multitasking” during the moments that preceded the sudden stop, we were actually engaged in a complex process of continuous sequential partial attention to each of the tasks we were performing.

Think about it. As you are listening to the podcast, your passenger says something about the hosts’ brilliance! You hear the comment and “consider” a response. At that moment you (your Rider) are no longer “paying attention” to the podcast. Your Rider is considering, and about to deliver, a response to the passenger’s comment. In that moment, you are not aware of the past 10 seconds of BrandBox, nor of the last two miles of highway. You have “shifted your attention” to responding to your passenger’s comment. Continuous sequential partial attention.

Another example. You’re driving alone on a cloudy night, listening to some of your favorite rock music on the radio. Suddenly, there’s a flash thunderstorm; it’s raining proverbial animals. How many of us instinctively reach to turn down the radio volume at moments like these?

I do.

Why? I instinctively realize that The Rider needs less musical stimulus so that it can focus on careful driving. The Elephant has notified The Rider that it needs The Rider’s undivided attention to safely handle the driving part of the situation. Attending to the music will have to wait until The Elephant can again signal that it is in safe control of the car. Then, The Rider will be free to sing along with the radio.

These examples highlight an irreducible reality about our engagement with the world. While The Elephant is equipped to simultaneously process/prioritize a lot of data, The Rider is not. And, while The Elephant is expert at evaluating and reacting to emerging situations, it can only do so within a set of complexity boundaries. When The Elephant summons The Rider’s attention, it is doing so because the situation requires activities that are beyond The Elephant’s remarkable capabilities. Daniel Kahneman’s classic example of this is that while The Elephant is perfectly capable of answering the question, “how much is two plus two?” it must hand off “how much is 24 times 17?” to The Rider (and maybe its calculator!). The Elephant is not equipped to perform that level of complex computation, which The Rider performs with ease. All of this is part of the exquisitely “designed” cognitive energy management system that has evolved to enable human survival and reproduction.

Over the past century we’ve created powerful sources of stimuli to capture our attention. Attention is now a critical element in the global economy. We have trained our Elephants and Riders to deftly navigate this stimulus-rich environment. In the process, we’ve convinced ourselves that we have overcome our neurophysiology’s inherent limitations…we’re multitaskers now!

But, as anyone who has tried to convince their life-partner that they really are listening to them while also doom-scrolling Twitter can attest, we can’t fool one another.

We know what real attention looks and feels like.

Ignoring these simple realities is dangerous.

Tragically, over 3,000 people annually die in highway accidents attributed to “distracted” driving.

They simply overwhelmed The Rider with too many demands.

Multitasking kills.

The Elephant’s evolved to do its best to keep us safe. But it can’t do it alone.

Help your Elephant to help you by reducing the demands you place on your Rider in complex situations.

Reject the myth of multitasking.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Header: MidJourney image created by author.