Hey Stupid! Keep Texting While Driving!

Think you're good at multitasking? You're not. And you might be a psychopath.

Just last week, my good friend, Philly Mag fact-checker extraordinaire Annie Monjar, wrote an item for the Philly Post poking fun at Vince Fumo’s girlfriend, Carolyn Zinni, for her online petition seeking to provide the Vince of Darkness with more fruits and veggies while he’s occupying a federal prison cell. Annie even quoted Vinni’s cry of anguish: “My Loved one is away in a Federal Prison Camp and has NOT had a piece of fruit or fresh vegetable in almost 4 YEARS !!”

Mere hours later, Annie slunk into my office in horror. Vince Fumo had been hospitalized in Kentucky for heart problems, including a 90 percent blockage in one of his arteries. Poor Annie couldn’t shake the feeling that her post was responsible for Vince’s health crisis. We tend to observe one thing following another and infer that the first thing occasioned the second, even when that is in no way true. Causation: It’s complicated.

I thought of this when I read the results of a University of Utah study in which researchers tried to nail down why people insist on multitasking—why, indeed, they pride themselves on multitasking—even though science has shown that those who multitask are less efficient than those who don’t. (They may be more anxious and depressed, too; scientists are still trying to tease out the causation in that.)

The Utah guys surveyed students about whether they used their cellphones while driving and asked if they considered themselves good at multitasking. Then they gave them a math test and asked them to solve the problems while remembering random strings of letters. The most multitask-y of the lot proved to be much worse at doing more than one thing at a time than the students who said they hardly ever used their phones while driving.

The takeaway, from David Sanbonmatsu, the Utah pysch prof who was lead author of the study: “People don’t multitask because they’re good at it. They do it because they are more distracted. They have trouble inhibiting the impulse to do another activity.” In other words, the—hey! Hey you! Put your goddamn phone away and listen to me! You don’t multitask because you’re superior! You do it because you can’t focus in!

All of this was beginning to ring a bell. Where had I last heard about people who have trouble inhibiting their impulses? Oh, yeah—it was while I was talking to Penn prof Adrian Raine about his research into psychopaths. Psychopaths are people who like to take risks and are impulsive and actively seek out thrills. I’m stuck on the Schuylkill Expressway every morning and night with a whole bunch of texting-while-driving psychopaths.

I see this on Twitter as well. I only signed onto Twitter very recently. I don’t tweet very much. You have to be kind of narcissistic to make the best use of Twitter. You know what’s funny? Narcissism is yet one more defining trait of psychopaths. And journalists recently came in sixth in a ranking of occupations most attractive to psychopaths. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s pretty easy to pinpoint the psychopa … I mean, the multitaskers among the (mostly) journalists I follow on there. (Hint: Men are much more likely to be psychopathic than are women. Of course, they’re also much more likely to be nominated for—and win—National Magazine Awards. Though when it comes to Twitter, Joyce Carol Oates is an honorary man.) They’re the ones with the God complexes—the ones who immerse themselves in Literature with a capital L, then gaze down from on high at the human race and summon forth their deep, deep thoughts, for us to ponder and be edified by:

Reread Proust today. He’s overrated.

Never realized Beowulf was so dark before. Wow.

Is there any more necessary writing than the opening of @Scrimshaw’s New Yorker piece on Mongolian hygiene in the 1830s?

These guys are so busy reading Great Works and tweeting, you have to wonder: Do they ever get any actual writing done? But I’m not complaining. I’m glad they’ve found yet another way to dilute their already petering attention. Keep tweeting away, dudes! National Magazine Awards, here we women come.