Finally a study that confirms why I have always had problems making coffee while people talk to me in the morning. Without exception, my working memory becomes "maxed out" and I end up forgetting the grounds, water, or fail to turn the machine on. My less than optimal working memory, and morning-fog attenuated attention, makes multitasking more difficult for me. At least now my suspicions are confirmed. Considerable research over the past decade is identifying working memory as important to performance on a wide variety of human tasks that require complex mental processing (where complexity does not always mean abstract - it can simply be complex in terms of attentional and resource sharing demands on working memory--i.e., a task requires lots of mental juggling of stuff).
König, C. (2005). Working Memory, Fluid Intelligence, and Attention Are Predictors of Multitasking Performance, but Polychronicity and Extraversion are not. Human Performance, 18(3), 243–266
- This study explored predictors of multitasking performance. Based on cognitive psychology research, attention and working memory were assumed to be predictors. Fluid intelligence, polychronicity (as the preference for multitasking and the belief that their preference is the best way to handle things), and Extraversion were argued to be additional predictors. Multitasking performance was measured with the scenari “Simultaneous capacity/Multi-tasking (SIMKAP)” (n = 122). Hierarchical multiple regression analyses revealed that working memory (Gsm-MW) was the most important predictor in addition to attention and fluid intelligence (Gf). The latter two constructs contributed significantly to the explained variance, but to a lesser extent. Polychronicity was not a significant predictor, nor was Extraversion. Implications for personnel selection and for time management are discussed.
The authors suggest a couple of potential practical implications:
- In terms of personnel selection, it implies that working memory tests could be used to select people for jobs that require a high amount of multitasking (e.g., pilots; see Maschke & Goeters, 1999). Even though using general mental abilities as a predictor is useful, the incremental validity of working memory in predicting multitasking performance beyond fluid intelligence provided support for an enhanced selection procedure.
- A second implication concerns time management because multitasking is a time-management strategy (cf. Britton & Tesser, 1991; König & Kleinmann, 2004). Although multitasking has a positive connotation in Britton and Tesser’s (1991) time-management questionnaire, time-management practitioners often advise against multitasking. For example, Mackenzie (1997) wrote “one thing at a time is enough for anybody to beworking on” (p. 122). Our results can offer a solution to this controversy: Multitasking might only be an effective time-management strategy for people with a large working memory capacity. However, if people are not aware of the working memory capacity (which is most likely to be the case in standard time-management training), time-management trainers might stay on the safe side and caution against multitasking as a time-management strategy.