Have you ever texted while driving? Or talked on the phone? Research published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests why doing the former is more dangerous than the latter, although both significantly impair your performance, reports ScienceDaily.com.

Thirty-two college students participated in the study. They were divided into two groups. One group was made to do two visual tasks; this involved completing a pattern-matching puzzle on a computer screen while giving someone else walking directions via instant messaging (IM). The other was assigned a combination of an audio task and a visual task; they had to complete the same puzzle as the other group while giving directions via audio chat. Eye-tracking technology was used to rate participants’ visual attention, and after completing the tasks, all participants were then asked to rate how they thought they did.

When researchers evaluated the participants’ performance in both tasks, they found that those who had to do two visual tasks performed worse than did those with the audio-visual combination, although both groups did more poorly when multitasking than when focused on one task. There was a 30-percent performance drop for the puzzle-completion task in those who gave audio directions dropped by 30 percent and a 50-percent drop in those who gave directions through IM.

While these findings may not seem like too great a revelation on paper, what the researchers found surprising (and deemed dangerous when applied to situations like using your phone while driving) was that participants who did the visual tasks rated their performance higher than the ones who did the combined audio and visual tasks, even though they actually did worse at the tests.

"Many people have this overconfidence in how well they can multitask, and our study shows that this particularly is the case when they combine two visual tasks," lead author Zheng Wang, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, is quoted as saying. "People's perception about how well they're doing doesn't match up with how they actually perform."

Wang’s recommendation in light of these findings is to educate people about the effects of multitasking, with a priority on young people who have not yet learned to drive. He also believes that being informed about multitasking and people’s response to it will lead to better products and better choices; for example, in choosing voice-guided navigational systems over image-guided ones.

Given this study, you may want to think twice about pulling out your smartphone the next time you’re driving and stuck in traffic. Why not listen to an audio book or turn on some music instead?


(Photo by Will Merydith via Flickr Creative Commons)

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