The role of inhibition in human multitasking performance, funded by the DFG

  • Funding agengy: German Research Foundation, DFG
  • Applicant and responsible staff member: Dr. Stefanie Schuch
  • Duration: 36 months, 2015-2018


A crucial cognitive process involved in human multitasking performance is the inhibition of irrelevant tasks. Inhibiting a previous, no longer relevant, task allows one to effectively perform the currently relevant task. This project aims to further investigate the characteristics of such task inhibition in three ways. First, focusing on the mechanisms underlying this important cognitive process, aftereffects of task inhibition will be investigated from the perspective of flexible adjustment of cognitive control. Moreover, the prominent assumption of decay of task inhibition, which occurs in many theories of task switching, will be put to explicit empirical test. Second, contextual influences on task inhibition will be investigated; specifically, how task inhibition is affected by social and emotional context. It will be assessed whether task inhibition occurs when two persons take turns in responding in a task-switching paradigm. Measuring task inhibition across persons would provide first evidence that inhibition of a previous task can be triggered by observing another person switch to another task. Furthermore, it will be investigated how task inhibition is modulated by mood state and affective context, linking up with a growing literature on affect and cognitive control. Third, task inhibition will be investigated in settings with higher ecological validity. So far task inhibition has mainly been assessed using paradigms with abstract cognitive tasks and simple response requirements. Here, it will be investigated whether task inhibition occurs with more natural stimuli, for example pictures of everyday objects, and with more complex actions, for example response sequences instead of single button presses. Furthermore, age-related changes of task inhibition will be investigated in these more ecologically valid settings. Over and above these three avenues, task inhibition will also be assessed in other paradigms of serial task switching that are applied within the Priority Program 1772, where inhibition is not in the focus of research but nevertheless might play a role. Finally, the effect size of task inhibition will be assessed using meta-analytic approaches. In sum, the knowledge gained from these studies will further inform theories of multitasking and task switching in cognitive psychology. Moreover, it might help to create work environments with appropriate social and affective context, as well as learning environments for both younger and older indivduals that allow for optimized multitasking performance.

Selected references

Schuch, S. & Grange, J. A. (2015). The Effect of N-3 on N-2 Repetition Costs in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 41, 760–767.

Schuch, S., & Koch, I. (2015). Mood states influence cognitive control: The case of conflict adaptation. Psychological Research, 79, 759-772.

Gade, M., Schuch, S., Druey, M., & Koch, I. (2014). Inhibitory control in task switching. In: Grange, J. A. & Houghton, G. (Eds.), Task Switching and Cognitive Control, pp. 137-159. Oxford University Press.

Koch, I., Gade, M., Schuch, S. & Philipp, A. M. (2010). The role of inhibition in task switching: A review. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17, 1-14.

Schuch, S., Bayliss, A. P., Klein, C. & Tipper, S. P. (2010). Attention modulates motor system activation during action observation: Evidence for inhibitory control. Experimental Brain Research, 205, 235-249.

Schuch, S. & Koch, I. (2003). The role of response selection for inhibition of task sets in task shifting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 29, 92-105.