Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

"Just Do It When You Get a Chance": The Effects of a Background Task on Primary Task Performance

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

"Just Do It When You Get a Chance": The Effects of a Background Task on Primary Task Performance

Article excerpt

Received: 5 March 2014 / Revised: 9 June 2014 / Accepted: 16 June 2014 / Published online: 31 July 2014

© The Psychonomic Society. Inc. 2014

Abstract Two experiments investigated multitasking performance with a new "prioritized-processing paradigm" in which participants responded only to a high-priority primary task when this task required some action, responding to a low-priority background task only when no action was required for the primary task. In both experiments, performance was worse on the primary task than on the same task performed in isolation, indicating that this attempt to give absolute priority to the primary task is not sufficient to protect it from multitasking interference. Multitasking interference was present for task-repetition trials as well as task-alternation trials, so the interference could not be completely explained as a task-switching cost. In addition, responses to the primary task were influenced by their compatibility with the responses associated with the stimulus for the background task, indicating that there was some activation of S-R associations within the background task even when this task did not require any response. The findings generalize a number of effects from the psychological refractory period and task-switching paradigms to the prioritized-processing paradigm, thereby providing hints as to the underlying mechanisms responsible for those effects. The "prioritized-processing paradigm" appears to have several desirable features for the study of multitasking interference.

Keywords Multitasking interference * Task priority * Reaction tune

Recent technological advances-particularly in communi- cation-offer greatly increased opportunities and demands for multitasking (e.g., Appelbaum, Marchionni, & Fernandez, 2008; Gleick, 1999; Rosen, 2008). It is widely recognized, however, that people's cognitive abilities to handle multiple tasks simultaneously are severely limited. Such limitations have been extensively documented and explored through research investigating attentional capac- ity (e.g., Navon & Gopher, 1979, Nonnan & Bobrow, 1975, 1976; Wickens, 1984), bottlenecks in central decision- making processes (e.g., Pashler, 1992; Welford, 1967), mutual interference between cognitive processes involved in different tasks (e.g., Bergen, Medeiros-Ward, Wheeler, Drews, & Strayer, 2013; Chong, Mills, Dailey, Lane, Smith, & Lee, 2010; Dutta, Schweickert, Choi, & Proctor, 1995; Hazeltine, Ruthruff, & Remington, 2006; Meyer & Kieras, 1997; Navon & Miller, 1987), and the perfonnance decre- ments that arise when people must switch among differ- ent tasks (e.g., Jersild, 1927; Rogers & Monsell, 1995). Although there appear to be some cases in which people can carry out multiple highly practiced continuous tasks with lit- tle interference (e.g., Peterson, 1969; Shaffer, 1975; Spelke, Hirst, & Neisser, 1976), there are good reasons to suspect that such dual-task situations allow intennittent processing of separate chunks within each task (Pashler, 1998, p. 270). Numerous studies with discrete tasks that prevent such chunking have revealed only a few exceptions to the gen- eralization that perfonnance worsens when multitasking is required (e.g., Brebner, 1977; Greenwald & Shuhnan, 1973; Schumacher et al., 2001). Moreover, multitasking limita- tions appear to have important implications not only in labo- ratory experiments but also in real-world situations (e.g., Hembrooke, & Gay, 2003)-perhaps most famously that of texting while driving (e.g., Janssen, Brumby, & Garnett, 2012; Levy & Pashler, 2008; Strayer & Drews, 2004).

In light of the cognitive limitations on multitasking, one obvious and appealing strategy for optimizing perfonnance on an especially important task is to give it maximum pri- ority. In theoretical tenns, this could mean, for example, (a) giving it all available attentional capacity both during task execution itself and during any advance task preparation phase, (b) giving it privileged access to the central bottle- neck, and (c) shielding its processes from interference gen- erated by low-priority tasks. …

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