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Task organization in multitasking: Determinants and characteristics of individual preferences for serial versus overlapping task processing and different strategies of response organization (2015-2018; 2018-2021)


Dietrich Manzey

Prof. Dr. Dietrich Manzey                        

Principal Investigator

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Jovita Brüning

Jovita Brüning             

PhD Candidate

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Meliha Cimen

Meliha Cimen 

Collaborative PhD Candidate

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Marcus Bleil

Marcus Bleil

software engineering


Former Team Members

Jessika Reissland

Jessika Reissland                          

Project Collaborator

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Abstract (2018-2021)

The current project addresses individual differences in coping with multiple task requirements. During the first funding period two experimental paradigms have been developed which enable to describe individual preferences on two different levels of task organization when performing two cognitive tasks concurrently. The first one is referred to as task-switching with preview (TSWP) and is used to study individual preferences for different modes of process organization, i.e. serial versus overlapping task processing. The second one is referred to as free concurrent dual-tasking (FCDT) and enables for differentiating between different sorts of response organization when coping concurrently with two tasks. Based on the first paradigm evidence was found, that individuals differ systematically in their preferred mode of processing. While some individuals prefer to work strictly serially on two tasks, others use options of overlapping (parallel) processing in order to optimize multitasking performance. Similar differences emerged on the level of response organization. Here three types of behavioral strategies could be distinguished which are referred to as blocking, switching and response-grouping. Moreover, evidence was found that the chosen mode of processing is adapted to task-demands (i.e., the risk of crosstalk between tasks to be performed concurrently). In contrast, the chosen response strategy seems to reflect a more rigid individual bias which remains constant independent of the strength of resource competition between tasks. The current project capitalizes on these findings and shall contribute to a better understanding of the characteristics, underlying determinants and links of the individual preferences on the two levels of task-organization in multitasking. With the use of the two paradigms mentioned above, the following specific objectives will be addressed in a series of proposed laboratory experiments: (1) Identification of possible links between preferred modes of processing and strategies of response organization. (2) Clarifying the nature of overlapping processing, i.e. what exactly is processed in an overlapping manner by individuals identified as overlapping processors in the TSWP paradigm and when this overlapping processing takes place. (3) Investigating the involvement of top-down and bottom-up control in preferred modes of processing and strategies of response organization. (4) Investigating context effects (e.g., general memory load, induced cognitive style of thinking, motivational state) on the use and efficiency of different response organization strategies in the FCDT paradigm. In addition, a number of cooperative studies with other partners in the SPP 1772 are planned which, among others, will address links to individual differences of cognitive and behavioral control found in other multitasking paradigms used in cognitive psychology and movement sciences.

Abstract (2015-2018)

Coping concurrently with multiple task requirements has high scientific and societal relevance, and has been focus of many studies.

For the last decades, research on the psychological refractory period (PRP) and task-switching has dominated this field. Focusing on investigating specific mechanisms such as central limitations in response selection or costs involved in switching between tasks, these studies have provided important insights in the constraints of human multitasking. However, aspects like self-paced task organization across time and the efficiency of different multitasking strategies have not been addressed by this research.

Another line of studies, mainly in the domain of human factors, just has focused on the overall performance in self-organized coping with two or more concurrent tasks, but neglected any detailed investigation of the mechanisms of task organization and scheduling involved in this performance.

This project intends to integrate these different lines of research. Based on evidence from previous research and pilot studies we propose to distinguish between two possible strategies of coping with multiple task demands, which we refer to as separating processing, characterized by task blocking and serial task organization, and interleaving processing with a high amount of simultaneous processing and response grouping.

We suppose that the efficiency of these two strategies depends on the characteristics of the tasks to be combined. Separating strategies, which promote task shielding, should be more effective if two tasks are prone to cross-talk. In contrast, interleaving should be especially efficient when two concurrent tasks provide opportunities for parallel processing and/or covert cognitive switches between tasks.

Within the project the impact of the different strategies on dual-task efficiency will be investigated based on a new methodological approach. It combines a dual-task paradigm demanding self-organized task scheduling while coping with two independent threads of tasks with fine-grained analyses of response times and inter-response-intervals based on methods and knowledge gained from PRP and task switching studies

Three objectives will be addressed in a series of laboratory experiments:

(1) To what extent does the efficiency of the different strategies depend on the characteristics of the tasks to be combined (i.e. overlap in resource demands; time structure)?

(2) To what extent will personally preferred multitasking strategies be adapted to those task characteristics?

(3) To what extent can personally preferred multitasking strategies for specific task combinations be changed by training and what performance consequences do result from such change?

The project results will provide important insights in fundamentals of self-organized multitasking and the efficiency and flexibility of different task organization strategies.


Project output

Brüning, J. & Manzey, D. (2017). Flexibility of individual multitasking strategies in task-switching with preview: are preferences for serial versus overlapping task processing dependent on between-task conflict? Psychological Research, online first. doi: 10.1007/s00426-017-0924-0.

Reissland, J. & Manzey, D. (2016). Serial or overlapping processing in multitasking as individual preference: Effects of stimulus preview on task switching and concurrent dual-task performance. Acta Psychologica, 168, 27-40. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.04.010.

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