The multitasking myth

Women are better at multitasking than men. Researchers put this popular belief to the test, and the results were surprising.

The word multitasking easily conjures up an image of a woman cooking while breastfeeding and sorting out expat bureaucracy on the phone. Or that of a man stopping whatever it is he’s doing because you asked him a yes or no question. But how real are these images?

Science rocks the boat

Timo Mäntylä, professor at the University of Stockholm, and his colleagues recently decided to test this scientifically. They let 160 women and men watch three digital counters showing different series of numbers, and state when they showed certain series. Simultaneously, they had to listen to an even stream of common Swedish first names and report whenever the same name appeared in a row of fours. “Pelle – Lina – Kajsa – Niclas – Pelle”.  Easy tasks, but the coordination is tricky.

Surprisingly – and bitterly – the men did not only match the women’s ability to multitask, they beat them. On the basis that spatial understanding and capacity for multitasking are connected, Mäntylä and his team also tested the ability of the participants to solve spatial problems. Perhaps less surprisingly this time, the men were better. Researchers believe that when multitasking, spatial abilities allow you to make use of mental timelines.

Never compete with a menstruating woman

Enter female complexity: The spatial understanding of women is not constant.

“Previous studies show that the spatial capacity of women depends on where they are in the menstruation cycle, with high capacity during menstruation and noticeably lower around the time of ovulation”, says Mäntylä in a press release. His test results, published in Psychological Science, concur: Men beat ovulating women at multitasking, but not menstruating women.

In addition, individual differences are significant for both women and men when solving spatial problems or when multitasking. Researchers believe this has to do with the capacity of our working memory, the part of our memory that temporarily processes and stocks information.

We may have fallen off our multitasking throne, but the research doesn’t reveal what’s on our minds while multitasking. Could it be that men focus on the particular task(s) while women make plans for the rest of the day, or week for that matter? Besides, it seems men can no longer use the excuse “hey, I’m a man you know”. Whereas we have a new one: “It must be because I’m ovulating”.

by Unni Holtedahl, January 2013

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