Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking

PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e54402. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054402. Epub 2013 Jan 23.


The present study examined the relationship between personality and individual differences in multi-tasking ability. Participants enrolled at the University of Utah completed measures of multi-tasking activity, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. In addition, they performed the Operation Span in order to assess their executive control and actual multi-tasking ability. The findings indicate that the persons who are most capable of multi-tasking effectively are not the persons who are most likely to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. To the contrary, multi-tasking activity as measured by the Media Multitasking Inventory and self-reported cell phone usage while driving were negatively correlated with actual multi-tasking ability. Multi-tasking was positively correlated with participants' perceived ability to multi-task ability which was found to be significantly inflated. Participants with a strong approach orientation and a weak avoidance orientation--high levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking--reported greater multi-tasking behavior. Finally, the findings suggest that people often engage in multi-tasking because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task. Participants with less executive control--low scorers on the Operation Span task and persons high in impulsivity--tended to report higher levels of multi-tasking activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / psychology*
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Personality Inventory
  • Risk-Taking
  • Self Efficacy*
  • Self Report
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis*

Grants and funding

This research was supported by a grant from the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.