Theory suggests that driving should be impaired for any motorist who is concurrently talking on a cell phone. But is everybody impaired by this dual-task combination? We tested 200 participants in a high-fidelity driving simulator in both single- and dual-task conditions. The dual task involved driving while performing a demanding auditory version of the operation span (OSPAN) task. Whereas the vast majority of participants showed significant performance decrements in dual-task conditions (compared with single-task conditions for either driving or OSPAN tasks), 2.5% of the sample showed absolutely no performance decrements with respect to performing single and dual tasks. In single-task conditions, these “supertaskers” scored in the top quartile on all dependent measures associated with driving and OSPAN tasks, and Monte Carlo simulations indicated that the frequency of supertaskers was significantly greater than chance. These individual differences help to sharpen our theoretical understanding of attention and cognitive control in naturalistic settings.
American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47–90). New York: Academic Press.
Drews, F. A., Pasupathi, M., & Strayer, D. L. (2008). Passenger and cell-phone conversation during simulated driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14, 392–400. doi:10.1037/a0013119
Engle, R. W. (2002). Working memory capacity as executive attention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 19–23.
Glassbrenner, D. (2005). Traffic safety facts research note: Driver cell phone use in 2005—Overall results (Rep. DOT HS 809 967). Washington, DC: National Center for Statistics and Analysis, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Grossberg, S. (1987). Competitive learning: From interactive activation to adaptive resonance. Cognitive Science, 11, 23–63.
Horswill, M., Waylen, A. E., & Tofield, M. I. (2004). Drivers' ratings of different components of their own driving skill: A greater illusion of superiority for skills that relate to accident involvement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 177–195. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2004.tb02543.x
Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Etienne, A., Ozdoba, C., Perrig, W. J., & Nirkko, A. C. (2007). On how high performers keep cool brains in situations of cognitive overload. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 75–89. doi:10.3758/CABN.7.2.75
Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2002). The role of prefrontal cortex in working memory capacity, executive attention and general fluid intelligence: An individual-differences perspective. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 637–671.
Medeiros-Ward, N. J., Watson, J. M., Seegmiller, J. K., Pulst, S., & Strayer, D. L. (2010). Supertaskers: An fMRI investigation of extraordinary multitaskers. Manuscript in preparation.
National Safety Council (2010, January 12). NSC estimates 1.6 million crashes caused by cell phone use and texting [Press release]. Retrieved from www.nsc.org/pages/NSCestimates16millioncrashescausedbydriversusingcellphonesandtexting.aspx).
Nationwide Insurance (2009). Customer insights: Driving while distracted—Cell phone ban. Retrieved from www.nationwide.com/pdf/NW-Cell-Phone-Ban-final-survey-results.pdf.
Navon, D. (1984). Resources—A theoretical soup stone? Psychological Review, 91, 216–234.
Norman, D. A., & Bobrow, D. G. (1975). On data-limited and resourcelimited processes. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 44–64.
Ophir, E., Nass, C. I., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15583–15587. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903620106
Parasuraman, R., & Greenwood, P. (2007). Individual differences in attention and working memory: A molecular genetic approach. In A. F. Kramer, D. A. Wiegmann, & A. Kirlik (Eds.), Attention: From theory to practice (pp. 59–72). New York: Oxford University Press.
Pashler, H. (1992). Attentional limitations in doing two tasks at the same time. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1, 44–48. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep11509734
Price, J., & Davis, B. (2008). The woman who can't forget: The extraordinary story of living with the most remarkable memory known to science—A memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Roediger, H. L., III (1996). Memory illusions. Journal of Memory & Language, 35, 76–100. doi:10.1006/jmla.1996.0005
Strayer, D. L., & Drews, F. A. (2007). Cell-phone-induced driver distraction. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 128–131.
Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., & Johnston, W. A. (2003). Cell phoneinduced failures of visual attention during simulated driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 9, 23–52.
Strayer, D. L., & Johnston, W. A. (2001). Driven to distraction: Dualtask studies of simulated driving and conversing on a cellular telephone. Psychological Science, 12, 462–466.
Tombu, M., & Jolicoeur, P. (2004). Virtually no evidence for virtually perfect time-sharing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 30, 795–810.
Turner, M. L., & Engle, R. W. (1989). Is working memory capacity task dependent? Journal of Memory & Language, 28, 127–154.
Unsworth, N., Heitz, R. P., Schrock, J. C., & Engle, R. W. (2005). An automated version of the operation span task. Behavior Research Methods, 37, 498–505.
Wallis, C. (2006, March 27). The multitasking generation. Time, 163.
Watson, J. M., Lambert, A. E., Miller, A. E., & Strayer, D. L. (in press). The magical letters P, F, C, and sometimes U: The rise and fall of executive attention with the development of prefrontal cortex. In K. Fingerman, C. Berg, T. Antonucci, & J. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of lifespan psychology. New York: Springer.
Wickens, C. D. (1980). The structure of attentional resources. In R. S. Nickerson (Ed.), Attention and performance VIII (pp. 239–257). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Support for this study was provided through an internal grant from the University of Utah.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Watson, J.M., Strayer, D.L. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 17, 479–485 (2010). https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.17.4.479
- Cell Phone
- Work Memory Capacity
- Dual Task
- Inattention Blindness
- Executive Attention