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Hum Factors. 2013 Aug;55(4):776-88.

Individual differences in multitasking ability and adaptability.

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  • 1University of Memphis, 202 Psychology Building, 400 Innovation Drive, Memphis, TN 38152, USA.



The aim of this study was to identify the cognitive factors that predictability and adaptability during multitasking with a flight simulator.


Multitasking has become increasingly prevalent as most professions require individuals to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. Considerable research has been undertaken to identify the characteristics of people (i.e., individual differences) that predict multitasking ability. Although working memory is a reliable predictor of general multitasking ability (i.e., performance in normal conditions), there is the question of whether different cognitive faculties are needed to rapidly respond to changing task demands (adaptability).


Participants first completed a battery of cognitive individual differences tests followed by multitasking sessions with a flight simulator. After a baseline condition, difficulty of the flight simulator was incrementally increased via four experimental manipulations, and performance metrics were collected to assess multitasking ability and adaptability.


Scholastic aptitude and working memory predicted general multitasking ability (i.e., performance at baseline difficulty), but spatial manipulation (in conjunction with working memory) was a major predictor of adaptability (performance in difficult conditions after accounting for baseline performance).


Multitasking ability and adaptability may be overlapping but separate constructs that draw on overlapping (but not identical) sets of cognitive abilities.


The results of this study are applicable to practitioners and researchers in human factors to assess multitasking performance in real-world contexts and with realistic task constraints. We also present a framework for conceptualizing multitasking adaptability on the basis of five adaptability profiles derived from performance on tasks with consistent versus increased difficulty.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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