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Confident Multitaskers Are the Most Dangerous behind the Wheel

The dangerous psychology of texting while driving
texting and driving



Alanpoulson

How good are you at multi-tasking? The way you answer that question may tell you more than you think. According to recent research, the better people think they are at multitasking, the worse they actually are at it. And the more that you think you are good at it, the more likely you are to multi-task when driving. Maybe the problem of distracted driving has less to do with the widespread use of smartphones and more to do with our inability to recognize our own limits.

A study by David Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues looked at the relationship between people’s beliefs about their own multi-tasking ability and their likelihood of using a cell phone when driving. Importantly, the study also measured people’s actual multi-tasking abilities. The researchers found that people who thought they were good at multi-tasking were actually the worst at it. They were also the most likely to report frequently using their cell phones when driving. This may help explain why warning people about the dangers of cell phone use when driving hasn’t done much to curb the behavior.

The study is another reminder that we are surprisingly poor judges of our own abilities. Research has found that people overestimate their own qualities in a number of areas including intelligence, physical health, and popularity. Furthermore, the worse we are at something, the more likely we may be to judge ourselves as competent at it. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have studied how incompetence, ironically, is often the result of not being able to accurately judge one’s own incompetence. In one study, they found that people who scored the lowest on tests of grammar and logic were the most likely to overestimate their own abilities. The reverse was also true: the more competent people were most likely to underestimate their abilities. And multi-tasking may be just yet another area where incompetence breeds over-confidence.

Talking on a cell phone is one of the more popular, and dangerous, ways to multi-task in the modern world. Some states have enacted laws and fines to deter the behavior, but the issue is not without controversy. People who support the ban of cell phones when driving argue that phones are especially distracting to drivers in a way that other activities are not. Those against widespread bans point out that multi-tasking when driving is nothing new, and the number of fatal accidents from “distracted driving” could be the result of any number of distractions including eating, talking with a fellow passenger, or fiddling with the radio.

In Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues’ study, three hundred participants completed a series of questionnaires that asked about their driving habits, their beliefs about their ability to successfully multi-task, and their tendencies toward impulsivity and thrill-seeking. In addition, participants completed something called the Operation Span task, a test which measures multi-tasking ability. During the test, participants were presented with a series of letters to memorize. In between being presented with the letters, they were asked to complete math problems. A person’s performance on the Operation Span task is based both on the number of letters successfully recalled along with the number of math problems that were answered correctly.

The researchers found that the people most likely to report using their cell phones while driving were the least likely to perform well on the Operation Span task. They were also the most likely to express confidence in their ability to successfully multi-task. (The researchers also found a connection to personality: those most likely to use their cell phones while driving scored highest on measures of impulsivity and thrill-seeking.) An important limitation of the study is that the data are correlational rather than causal in nature, however the study clearly demonstrates that many of us may have a blind spot when it comes to judging our ability to successfully talk on the phone while driving.

Given these results, what might be effective at stopping people from multi-tasking when behind the wheel? Probably not more scare tactics. After all, the problem is not that people don’t recognize the dangers of multi-tasking when driving—rather, the problem is that we only think it’s risky when other people do it. Maybe the best way to curb the distracting driving would be to make it a socially undesirable thing to do. Psychologist Robert Cialdini, a leading researcher on the topic of persuasion, has shown that we are more likely to do something undesirable when we see a lot of other people do it too. In one famous set of experiments, Cialdini demonstrated how people are more likely to litter in a parking lot that’s already covered with flyers, rather than one that is free of litter. When we hear about the widespread use of cell phone use when driving, we may actually be more likely to do it ourselves.

Instead of more laws and fines, the government may want to send a message that most people no longer think it is appropriate to use cell phones when driving. If people buy-in to this message about what others are doing, they may be less likely to do it themselves. Even if it is only really a problem when the other guy does it.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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