We’ve heard the ‘myth’ before — that women are better multi-taskers than men, but there is little scientific evidence behind the belief. The image of a multi-tasking modern woman is a career-minded mother who raises kids, cleans and cooks, and manages day-to-day household tasks, all while pursuing a successful career. A group of researchers recently chose to investigate this further, and found that women had a slight advantage over men when it came to certain tasks, including creating strategies for finding lost items and not letting a longer to-do list slow them down in completing tasks.
"Using two very different experimental set ups, we found that women have an advantage over men in specific aspects of multitasking situations," Gijsbert Stoet, author of the paper, said in a press release about the study.
The researchers chose two experiments to test who may have an advantage in certain multi-tasking situations. In the first experiment, the researchers found that both men and women slowed down when they were faced with more than one task, but that women slowed down less than men. In the second experiment, men and women were pitted against one another and asked to complete three tasks within a time period of eight minutes. During the completion of the tasks, a phone would ring where the participant would have to answer general knowledge questions. Though men and women appeared to score equally in this experiment — which involved solving arithmetic problems and searching for restaurants on a map — women did better than their male counterparts on a task where they had to locate a lost key.
Some scientists who have studied this topic, however, may be likely to disagree with Stoet’s results — such as researcher Timo Mantyla from Stockholm University. Mantyla found the opposite after experimenting with men and women: concluding that men are indeed the better multi-taskers. But Mantyla’s experiments were quite different from Stoet’s, and likely tested different cognitive functions, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult to scientifically prove who is better at multi-tasking. Interestingly, although Mantyla concluded that men outperformed women in the tasks he assigned, he found that women’s performances depended on where they were in their menstrual cycle. During their luteal phase, women fell behind men; during their period, women caught up to men and the difference almost disappeared.
Stoet and his research team recognize that more testing will need to be done before forming a strong conclusion. "Women outperform men in these multitasking paradigms, but the near lack of empirical studies on gender differences in multitasking should caution against making strong generalizations,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “Instead, we hope that other researchers will aim to replicate and elaborate on our findings.”
Source: Stoet G, O'Connor DB, Conner M, Laws KL. Are women better than men at multi-tasking? BMC Psychology. 2013.