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Keywords:

  • Multitasking;
  • Cognitive modeling;
  • Human–computer interaction;
  • Driving;
  • Performance tradeoffs;
  • Performance operating characteristic

Abstract

How do people interleave attention when multitasking? One dominant account is that the completion of a subtask serves as a cue to switch tasks. But what happens if switching solely at subtask boundaries led to poor performance? We report a study in which participants manually dialed a UK-style telephone number while driving a simulated vehicle. If the driver were to exclusively return his or her attention to driving after completing a subtask (i.e., using the single break in the xxxxx-xxxxxx representational structure of the number), then we would expect to see a relatively poor driving performance. In contrast, our results show that drivers choose to return attention to steering control before the natural subtask boundary. A computational modeling analysis shows that drivers had to adopt this strategy to meet the required performance objective of maintaining an acceptable lateral position in the road while dialing. Taken together these results support the idea that people can strategically control the allocation of attention in multitask settings to meet specific performance criteria.