Newly-published research out of the UK concludes that women are better at certain forms of multitasking than men. The results agree with folk-knowledge, and even spurred one researcher to conclude that "if women couldn't multitask, we wouldn't be here." But how big of a difference is there really?
The study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal BMC Psychology, concludes that men performed significantly slower than women on a computerized test that requires users to juggle tasks involving counting and shape-recognition (try it out for yourself here). A followup test involving more real-world scenarios (wherein test subjects were allotted eight minutes to locate restaurants on a map, perform simple maths equations, answer a phone call, and plan how to go about sweeping a field for a set of lost keys) also put women at an advantage, albeit only during the key-search portion.
Completing all these assignments in eight minutes was impossible - so it forced men and women to prioritise, organise their time, and keep calm under pressure.
In the key search task in particular, women displayed a clear performance advantage over men, says co-author Prof Keith Laws, of the University of Hertfordshire.
"You can see from the drawings - women used methodical search patterns, like going round the field in concentric circles. That's a highly productive strategy for finding a lost object.
"Whereas some men didn't even search the whole field in any particular manner, which is just bizarre."
Laws says his team's findings suggest that women are more organized under pressure; where men have a tendency to act impulsively, he says, women spend more time planning ahead. "It suggests that - in a stressed and complex situation - women are more able to stop and think about what's going on in front of them."
The observation gels strongly with the so-called "hunter-gatherer" hypothesis for male and female multi-tasking skills. Writes University of Glasgow researcher Gijsbert Stoet, first author on the paper:
The hunter-gatherer hypothesis proposes that men and women have cognitively adapted to a division of labor between the sexes (i.e., men are optimized for hunting, and women are optimized for gathering). [Previous researchers have] speculated that women’s gathering needed to be combined with looking after children, which possibly requires more multi-tasking than doing a task without having to look after your offspring
"Put simply," Stoet told the BBC, "if women couldn't multitask, we wouldn't be here."
Evolutionary arguments notwithstanding, what the rest of the BBC's coverage (which you can read here) neglects to mention is that while the study does conclude that women outperform men in these particular "multi-tasking paradigms," the researchers also note that "a near lack of empirical studies on gender differences in multitasking should caution against making strong generalisations," which generalizations, let's be honest, results like this tend to precipitate.
It's also important to remember that multi-tasking, as the researchers acknowledge, is "a relatively broad concept in psychology." As with other broad concepts, this makes it difficult to boil multitasking-abilities down to binary, battle-of-the-sexes type comparisons. At least one other study, led by Stockholm University's Timo Mäntylä, has found that women perform worse than men on multitasking that involves spatial reasoning (the study also linked the performance gap to where women were in their menstrual cycles).
But then are men "better" multitaskers than women? Sure. Sometimes. Maybe. It might also be easier to say who is better at what if humans were any good at multitasking to begin with. But we're not. We're awful at it. In fact, the better most people think they are at multitasking, the worse they actually are; findings published earlier this year by University of Utah psychologists David Strayer and David Sanbonmatsu found that people who identify as strong multitaskers actually tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking and overconfident in their ability to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. The people who identify as multitasking the most are often the least capable of doing so effectively. (Strayer and Sonbonmatsu also found that seventy percent of their participants rated themselves as above-average at multitasking, and while they make no mention of each gender's self-opinion, Stoet and his colleagues make the general observation that men tend to think themselves better multitaskers than they actually are, whereas women tend to do the opposite.)
As Stoet and his colleagues note, the most important consideration of all is that the study of multitasking is an emerging field that is represented by a small body of scientific observation and analysis. Add to this the fact that there are many ways to assess multi-tasking performance, and the discordant results of Strayer, Stoet and Mäntylä seem perhaps less at conflict with one another, and more like different sides of a broad, multi-faceted psychological concept. Or, as Stoet and colleagues put it, "the near lack of empirical studies on gender differences in multitasking should caution against making strong generalisations. Instead, we hope that other researchers will aim to replicate and elaborate on our findings."
Read the full study in BMC Psychology.