New research supports theory that women are better multi-taskers

New research from a team of psychologists supports the popular perception that women are better at multitasking than men.

Although many people believe that women are better than men at carrying out multiple tasks at the same time, the amount of research carried out to test the hypothesis is extremely limited.

A new paper published today in the open access journal BMC Psychology by researchers from the Universities of Glasgow, Hertfordshire and Leeds outlines the results of series of tests which measured volunteers’ ability to carry out multiple tasks in laboratory and more real-world situations.

The researchers found that women demonstrated a distinct advantage over men in specific aspects of both multitasking situations.

In the first test, 120 men and 120 women completed a computer-based challenge measuring how well they could rapidly switch between two simple tasks. In both these tasks, participants responded to geometrical objects shown on the screen with a left or right handed button press. Their response speed was measured under two different conditions. In one condition they did just one task at the time; in the second they rapidly switched between the two tasks. Both men and women slow down when rapidly interleaving two tasks compared doing one task at the time; what is important, though, is that men slowed more (77% slow down in performance speed) than women (69% slow down in performance speed.).The difference in speed between genders indicates that women had less difficulty with multi-tasking than men.

A different group of 47 men and 47 women participated in the second test, which aimed to measure multitasking in three tasks that are more common to everyday life.

They were asked to sketch out how they would attempt a search for a set of lost keys in a field; to locate restaurants on a map; and solve simple arithmetical questions. They were also told to expect to receive a phone call during the test. If they chose to answer the phone, they asked to answer some general-knowledge questions, such as naming the capital of France. They had eight minutes to complete as much of each task as possible.

In this realistic task, women developed far better strategies for finding the lost keys. Keith Laws, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire and one of the authors of the paper, said: “This one significant advantage for women on the key search task suggests that they may be superior at tasks requiring high-level cognitive control, particularly planning, monitoring and inhibition.”

Dr Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow’s School of Psychology, who led the research, said: “The study of sex differences in basic tests of mental functioning are incredibly important. It not just helps us to better understand about how gender differences might have emerged throughout our evolutionary past, but also to link this to the question of why boys and men suffer more from attentional disorders than women.

“While our results are interesting, they still represent only a very specific set of multi-tasking tasks which tested a limited area of cognitive ability. More research is required before we can draw any definite conclusions and provide explanations as to precisely why women appear from our evidence to be better multi-taskers.”

The team’s paper, ‘Are women better than men at multi-tasking?’, is published today in the open access journal BMC Psychology. An online demonstration of the task-switching test is also available at the journal website.

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Dr Gijbert Stoet

School of Education

College of Social Sciences