Women have edge in multi-tasking – study

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Picking up poop, riding, domestic chores. A horse owner's work is never done.
Picking up poop, riding, domestic chores. A horse owner’s work is never done.

You’ve seen the kids off to school, ridden your horse, picked up poop, done the housework and organised dinner, all while organising the farrier and fitting in a little grocery shopping while taking your elderly mother-in-law for an appointment.

Yes, the average horse-loving housewife is living proof of what British psychologists have just demonstrated in a study: that women are better at multi-tasking than men.

The researchers said it was a common belief that women can juggle different tasks at the same time, while men find it difficult to do more than one thing at a time.

Despite this notion being widely believed, little research has been focused on the issue.

Now, new research from the universities of Hertfordshire, Glasgow and Leeds, just published in the journal, BMC Psychology, provides support for the proposal that women are better at multi-tasking.

Keith Laws, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “We’ve all heard stories about men not being able to multi-task and only being able to focus on one thing at a time. And also stories about women who are able to manage several activities at the same time.

“Through a set of two experiments, we measured people’s ability to carry out multiple tasks either at the same time or in very quick succession. And the results showed that women had a distinct advantage in both types of multi-tasking.”

In the first experiment, 120 men and 120 women participated in a computer-based challenge designed to measure their task-switching abilities. The participants performed two tasks separately before being asked to perform them both in the same test.

Although men and women performed the separate tasks with the same speed and accuracy, men were slower than women on the mixed tasks.

Women’s responses were around 61 percent slower, whereas men’s responses were 77 percent slower – suggesting that women have an advantage over men in this type of multitasking.

In the second experiment, a different group of 47 men and 47 women were tested to measure their response to multitasking in more common real-life tasks.

In a pre-set time limit, they were asked to sketch out how they would attempt a search for a set of lost keys in a field; to find restaurant symbols on a map of the city of Philadelphia (to test their everyday attention levels); and solve simple arithmetical questions.

The tasks were chosen to test their planning and strategic abilities, their attention control and manipulation of simple information under time pressure.

It was left for participants to decide how to split the time between each task and they were also told to expect a phone call at some point during the test – which they could choose to answer or not. If they answered the phone, they were asked a series of additional general knowledge questions to add to the burden.

In this series of tests, women scored significantly higher on the key search task – suggesting that they are better at tasks which require high-level cognitive control, particularly planning, monitoring and inhibition.

Overall, the results of both experiments support the notion that women are better at multitasking than men.
However, further research is required to provide explanations as to precisely why women appear to be better multi-taskers.

Laws was joined in the research by Gijsbert Stoet, Daryl O’Connor and Mark Conner.

Are women better than men at multi-tasking?
Gijsbert Stoet, Daryl B O’Connor, Mark Conner and Keith R Laws
BMC Psychology 2013, 1:18 doi:10.1186/2050-7283-1-18.

The research was supported by a grant from the British Academy.

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