When asked to compare themselves to their classmates and to adults as a whole, the students "showed a consistent bias to overestimate their perceived ability to multitask," Strayer said. About 70 percent of respondents said they're above average at multitasking, and another 11 percent said they were average.
"If you look at the percentage who rate their ability at or above average, that is over 80 percent," Strayer said. "That is a striking disconnect."
For the study, students took a test that forces them to memorize letters and do math problems at the same time. It's designed to mimic the challenges of multitasking. The 25 percent of students who did the best on the test were the least likely to actually multitask in real life.
People who do multitask have a variety of motivations, Strayer said. "We tend to be impulsive or looking for sensations, or we're bored."
Lee, the University of Wisconsin professor, praised the quality of the study but pointed out that there's a difference between the multitasking that the participants tried to perform and the kind of multitasking that people do, say, on the road. "The authors argue that [the test] taps into the same mental ability," he said, but "the study does not address this issue directly."
The American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety funded the study, which appears in the Jan. 23 issue of PLoS One.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have more about distracted driving.
SOURCES: David Strayer, Ph.D., professor of psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; John Lee, Ph.D., professor, department of industrial and systems engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Jan. 23, 2013, PLoS ONE'/>"/>
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