The illusion of competence


I’ve seen them in meetings (especially “NATO Initiatives”: meetings that are “no action, talk only”). They’re listing to the discussion, sometimes contributing comments, browsing documents, and responding to text messages on their cell phones. They think they’re pretty sharp.

But, according to Clifford I. Nass, a Stanford psychology professor, “Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities…. But there’s evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people.” The surprising result of a survey he conducted was that people who self-identified as multitaskers actually performed worse on multitasking exercises than people who said they preferred to concentrate on one thing at a time.

The reason for this seems to be that chronic multitaskers give themselves up to distractions and overload their memory or attention capacities. David Glenn, in an article about the research in the Chronicle of Higher Education (read more there), writes that “People with strong working-memory capacities don’t have a larger nightclub in their brains. They just have better bouncers working the velvet rope outside. Strong attentional abilities produce stronger fluid intelligence.”


Image via Scott Beale / Laughing Squid,


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1 Comment

  1. I probably agree, but now I’m totally self-evaluating and wondering where I fall in this spectrum. Probably should think twice about proclaiming oneself as a “Multitasker.”

    Also, good one on the “NATO” meetings.