In a series of related experiments, we asked people to choose whether to split their attention between two equally likely potential tasks or to prioritize one task at the expense of the other. In such a choice, when the tasks are easy, the best strategy is to prepare for both of them. As difficulty increases beyond the point at which people can perform both tasks accurately, they should switch strategy and focus on one task at the expense of the other. Across three very different tasks (target detection, throwing, and memory), none of the participants switched their strategy at the correct point. Moreover, the majority consistently failed to modify their strategy in response to changes in task difficulty. This failure may have been related to uncertainty about their own ability, because in a version of the experiment in which there was no uncertainty, participants uniformly switched at an optimal point.
Bibliographical noteAcknowledgments: We thank Alex Irvine, Melissa Spilioti, and a group of 3rd-year students for their help with data collection, and Peter Neri, Rob McIntosh, Sandrina Ritzmann, and James Sheils for their valuable input.
Funding: This work was supported by a James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award (to A. R. Hunt)
- decision making
- optimal behavior
- open data