The Multitasking Myth: Handling Complexity in Real-World Operations

By Wise, Matthew | Journal of Adult Education, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Multitasking Myth: Handling Complexity in Real-World Operations


Wise, Matthew, Journal of Adult Education


Loukopoulos, L. D., Dismukes, R. K., & Barshi, I. (2009). The multitasking myth: Handling complexity in real-world operations. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company. 188 pages.

A myth exists about multitasking. This myth assumes that people are capable of performing more than one task at the same time. While humans have considerable ability to juggle multiple tasks, "there are sever limits to how much and how well one can juggle tasks" (p. 12). The juggling of multiple tasks involves cognitive processes that far exceed the requirements of performing the tasks singly. "Although individuals may think they are performing several tasks simultaneously, human ability to process more than one stream of information at a time and respond accordingly is severely limited" (p. 14).

Because of the demands for limited cognitive resources, "it is not possible to simultaneously perform multiple tasks that involve novelty, planning, or overriding habits" (p. 15). In situations such as these, a person can only attend to one stream of information." Individuals may have the impression that they are performing two or more attentionrequiring tasks simultaneously when in fact what they are actually doing is alternating among elements of each task" (p. 16). As changes in real- world situations require different cognitive resources, the mind switchs among the tasks. This process can cause some tasks to be deferred while others are completed. Unfortunately, the brain does not seem to have a mechanism to automatically reactivate the deferred tasks. In this demand for limited cognitive resources, "individuals may respond to overwhelming concurrent task demands by lowering criteria for quality, accuracy or completeness of some task elements or by eliminating some tasks altogether" (p. 18). Thus, "the myth of multitasking is that we can-and in fact are expected to-handle multiple concurrent demands without repercussions" (back cover).

To systematically investigate the nature of multitasking, Loukopoulos, Dismukes, and Barshi explore the challenges and risks of managing and concurrently performing various tasks within professional work environments. Although their major area of focus is within the work environment of the airline industry, "the lessons learned apply equally well to any arena in which individuals must juggle multiple tasks or must defer an intended action, that is, practically any professional setting" (p. xiv). Airline pilots are faced with a difficult task of managing numerous scheduled and non-scheduled events while maintaining an organized procedural process of the events to safely complete a checklist, segment of flight, or manage the safety of the aircraft. The authors are all human factors researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Center Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center. They have extensive backgrounds with the field of aviation training and research.

The authors argue the concept or the myth that multitasking various events cannot be accomplished without undue risk within job-related duties. They studied multiple aspects of normal and abnormal duties that are performed on the flight deck to obtain a snapshot of the environment in which an airline pilot operates. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports, the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), flight deck observations, and airline procedural flight manuals were utilized to draw inferences on and conclusions from airline incidents and accidents. Their data supported findings that human error may have been the determining factors in the incidents in many cases as a result of possible omitted required tasks due to crew distractions or uncompleted tasks while managing multiple events. The authors contend that there is a paradigm shift from the thought that we have acquired the ability to manage several tasks and correctly accomplish these tasks to the belief that there is an inherent concern in the ability to recall procedural and event-type tasks in a multitasking situation to safely and correctly apply them to a work-related environment. …

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