Women 'better at multitasking' than men, study finds

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Multitasking man
Image caption,
The average man was slower at juggling tasks than women, but there may be advantages to a one-track mind

It is not a myth - women really are better than men at multitasking, at least in certain cases, a study says.

Men were slower and less organised than women when switching rapidly between tasks in tests by UK psychologists.

Both sexes struggled to cope with juggling priorities, but men suffered more on average, according to the paper in the journal BMC Psychology.

It says: "The question now is why? And is it all types of multitasking or only certain situations?"

The researchers hope to encourage more research on a topic which they say has attracted "astonishingly few" studies - considering how often the "women vs men" debate crops up in conversation.

If men really are slower than women, it could have serious implications for how workplaces are organised, says co-author Dr Gijsbert Stoet, of the University of Glasgow.

"Multitasking is getting more and more important in the office - but it's very distracting, all these gadgets interrupting our workflow.

"It could be that men suffer more from this constant switching," he told BBC News.

Previous studies on gender and multitasking have drawn widely different conclusions.

One experiment in China found that women outperformed their male counterparts, while another in Sweden found that men may actually be better than women at multitasking when spatial tasks are involved.

To settle the argument, Dr Stoet and a colleague set out to compare women and men in a certain type of multitasking; the kind we use when faced with juggling many tasks in rapid succession - but not quite simultaneously.

These might include office workers who jump between incoming emails, phone calls and assignments, while running in and out of meetings. Another example might be parents in the household - cooking a meal while looking after young children and suddenly having to answer the phone.

First, they compared 120 women and 120 men in a computer test which involves switching between tasks involving counting and shape-recognition.

Men and women were equal when tasks were tackled one at a time. But when the tasks were mixed up there was a clear difference.

Both women and men slowed down, and made more mistakes, as the switching became more rapid.

But the men were significantly slower - taking 77% longer to respond, whereas women took 69% longer.

"This difference may seem small, but it adds up" over a working day or week, said Dr Stoet.

To make the experiment more relevant to everyday life, the researchers tried a second test.

A group of women and men were given eight minutes to complete a series of tasks - locating restaurants on a map, doing simple maths problems, answering a phone call, and deciding how they would search for a lost key in a field.

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 rectangles. 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."

Image caption,
Example of a female (left) and male (right) approach to searching for a lost key

The reason, he observed, was that women were more organised under pressure.

"They spent more time thinking at the beginning, whereas men had a slight impulsiveness, they jumped in too quickly," said Prof Laws.

"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."

Altogether, they conclude that women "have an advantage over men" in multitasking, at least in certain situations.

"This suggestion does rankle a bit with men," Prof Laws explained.

"Men tell me this just doesn't ring true with their experience. They regale me with stories about how the greatest pilots in the RAF are men and they have to deal with lots of different incoming information all the time.

"And of course there are men who are experts. We'd never claim that all men can't multitask, or that only women can.

"But we'd argue the average woman is better able to organise her time and switch between tasks than the average man.

"There's no point denying these differences exist."

Psychologist Dr Dongning Ren of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the study was a useful addition to the scientific debate.

Image caption,
Have women evolved to be naturally better at multitasking? Or is it learned by practice?

"In my own research, I found similar results, so this adds support for this conclusion," she told the BBC.

"Still, it is possible that for certain tasks, men might be better at multitasking. It may depend on the nature of the tasks - sequential or simultaneous."

In a world where people increasingly have to multitask, we need to help individuals adapt their roles to their abilities, said Prof Laws.

"Of course I don't think we should just assign women to roles where rapid switching is demanded," he explained.

Instead, employers should consider assessing individuals' ability in multitasking, as some firms already do.

"Because the truth is - people don't seem to be very good at assessing themselves," Prof Laws told BBC News.

"Studies show that men tend to think they're better at multitasking than they are in reality, and women tend to think they're worse than they really are.

"I think I am great at it, but my wife thinks I'm not."

If women really are better than men, the obvious question is why?

It could be that what Dr Stoet and Prof Laws observed is a learning effect - where people become expert multitaskers by practice.

But there are plenty of evolutionary theories too - such as the hunter-gatherer hypothesis.

This invokes a rather traditional image of women at home, cooking and tending to the infants, with men out doing so-called "linear" tasks such as chasing and killing prey.

"Put simply - if women couldn't multitask, we wouldn't be here," said Dr Stoet.

And interestingly - compared to our closest relatives, the apes, we are all terrible at multitasking - men and women alike.

If humans have "lost" this ability during evolution, it suggests that our simple, one-track minds could actually give us an advantage, Dr Stoet explained.

"Filtering out distractions helps us to achieve things we couldn't otherwise do. Like making fire," he said, offering a grain of comfort to those who find themselves on the wrong side of the divide.