Multitasking And Divided Attention

terraced garden

Multitasking can be defined as the attempt to perform two or more tasks simultaneously; however, research shows that when multitasking, people make more mistakes or perform their tasks more slowly. Attention must be divided among all of the component tasks to perform them.

In divided attention, individuals attend or give attention to multiple sources of information at once or perform more than one task at the same time.

Older research involved looking at the limits of people performing simultaneous tasks like reading stories, while listening and writing something else, or listening to two separate messages through different ears (i.e., dichotic listening). Generally, classical research into attention investigated the ability of people to learn new information when there were multiple tasks to be performed, or to probe the limits of our perception (c.f. Donald Broadbent).

There is also older literature on people’s performance on multiple tasks performed simultaneously, such as driving a car while tuning a radio or driving while being on the phone.

Attentional Limits

The vast majority of current research on human multitasking is based on performance of doing two tasks simultaneously, usually that involves driving while performing another task, such as texting, eating, or even speaking to passengers in the vehicle, or with a friend over a cellphone.

This research reveals that the human attentional system has limits for what it can process: driving performance is worse while engaged in other tasks; drivers make more mistakes, brake harder and later, get into more accidents, veer into other lanes, and/or are less aware of their surroundings when engaged in the previously discussed tasks.

There has been little difference found between speaking on a hands-free cell phone or a hand-held cell phone,[1] which suggests that it is the strain of attentional system that causes problems, rather than what the driver is doing with his or her hands.

While speaking with a passenger is as cognitively demanding as speaking with a friend over the phone, passengers are able to change the conversation based upon the needs of the driver.

For example, if traffic intensifies, a passenger may stop talking to allow the driver to navigate the increasingly difficult roadway; a conversation partner over a phone would not be aware of the change in environment.

Modalities And Resource Theory

There have been multiple theories regarding divided attention.

One, conceived by Kahneman,[2] explains that there is a single pool of attentional resources that can be freely divided among multiple tasks. This model seems oversimplified, however, due to the different modalities (e.g., visual, auditory, verbal) that are perceived.

When the two simultaneous tasks use the same modality, such as listening to a radio station and writing a paper, it is much more difficult to concentrate on both because the tasks are likely to interfere with each other. The specific modality model was theorized by Navon and Gopher in 1979. However, more recent research using well controlled dual-task paradigms points at the importance of tasks.

As an alternative, resource theory has been proposed as a more accurate metaphor for explaining divided attention on complex tasks. Resource theory states that as each complex task is automatized, performing that task requires less of the individual’s limited-capacity attentional resources.

Other variables play a part in our ability to pay attention to and concentrate on many tasks at once. These include, but are not limited to, anxiety, arousal, task difficulty, and skills.


  1. Chabris CF, Simons DJ (2010). The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York: Crown
  2. Kahneman D (1973). Attention and Effort (PDF). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Image: Detail from Terraced Garden (1920) Paul Klee

Last Updated on January 8, 2024