WikiAnswers.com, in answer to the question, “Is multitasking efficient?” says, “sometimes, but not while driving.” Researchers at Stanford University, who have recently reported their findings on searching for the secret to good media multitasking in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, would likely take issue with this answer. Not with the “not while driving” qualification, but with the already limiting “sometimes.” This is because there appears to be no good multitasking in any context. As the Stanford University News report of the study puts it: “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”
According to the Stanford report, self-described high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant, could not organize their memories, and could not help thinking about the task they were notdoing. Studies of cell-phone using drivers have tended to compare the mental fitness level of the phone-distracted driver to that of an alcohol-impaired driver. We may suspect that this comparison may not be as effective a deterrent on young drivers as the Stanford study, which challenges the common wisdom that having grown up with multi-media devices they are “wired” to effectively process all the various inputs simultaneously.
Another disturbing implication of the study is the suggestion that chronic media multitaskers may be damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in (or trying to take in) so much at once. Furthermore, driving even without simultaneously talking on a hand-held or hands-free phone is arguably an already multi-tasking activity.
A recent study of cognitive impairment by the witnessing of rudeness in the workplace also has received a good deal of attention recently. Researchers at the University of Florida’s school of management have concluded that employees who are not the intended targets of abusive workplace remarks but who simply observe such discourteous and rude behaviour still suffer from its effects.
The effects of rude behavior include, according to Amir Erez, a co-author of the study, erosion of, “[the] ability to think creatively, solve problems, [and] be good team players and even goes so far as to make them harbor deep, dark and destructive thoughts.” Mr. Erez also said he was shocked by the findings: “Considering the sheer numbers of people who witness daily acts of incivility, if rudeness primes them to think in an aggressive and hostile manner, it could take a devastating toll on organizations and society at large.”
Drivers are frequently exposed to acts of incivility on the roads: honking, tailgating, inconsiderate lane changing and so on. This study suggests that not only the most at-risk drivers—those directly adjacent to discourteous drivers, but also those who witness such behaviour are likely to be not only emotionally upset but also cognitively troubled by it. We probably do not need a “study” to tell us this.