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Multitasking as a choice: a perspective

Abstract

Performance decrements in multitasking have been explained by limitations in cognitive capacity, either modelled as static structural bottlenecks or as the scarcity of overall cognitive resources that prevent humans, or at least restrict them, from processing two tasks at the same time. However, recent research has shown that individual differences, flexible resource allocation, and prioritization of tasks cannot be fully explained by these accounts. We argue that understanding human multitasking as a choice and examining multitasking performance from the perspective of judgment and decision-making (JDM), may complement current dual-task theories. We outline two prominent theories from the area of JDM, namely Simple Heuristics and the Decision Field Theory, and adapt these theories to multitasking research. Here, we explain how computational modelling techniques and decision-making parameters used in JDM may provide a benefit to understanding multitasking costs and argue that these techniques and parameters have the potential to predict multitasking behavior in general, and also individual differences in behavior. Finally, we present the one-reason choice metaphor to explain a flexible use of limited capacity as well as changes in serial and parallel task processing. Based on this newly combined approach, we outline a concrete interdisciplinary future research program that we think will help to further develop multitasking research.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Information processing is understood as the ability to either carry out multiple operations in parallel, or to serially attend to one item at a time in succession (Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977; Snodgrass & Townsend, 1980).

  2. 2.

    In this paper, we focussed on the transfer of JDM to multitasking, however, it should be noted that we consider a bi-directional transfer as fruitful (e.g. Kahneman, 2011, for the transfer of attention and effort to JDM theories).

  3. 3.

    For a similar modelling approach of individual differences in choices using DFT parameters see Raab and Johnson (2004).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Department of Performance Psychology of the German Sport University Cologne for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Laura Broeker.

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This research was funded by a Grant within the Priority Program, SPP 1772 from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), Laura Broeker and Markus Raab were funded by Grant no.: RA 940/17-1, Roman Liepelt was funded by and LI 2115/2-1 Stefan Künzell and Harald Ewolds were funded by Grant no.: KU 1557/3-1, and Edita Poljac was supported by the Grant no.: KI 1388-/7-1.

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Broeker, L., Liepelt, R., Poljac, E. et al. Multitasking as a choice: a perspective. Psychological Research 82, 12–23 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-017-0938-7

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