According to popular stereotypes, women are better multitaskers. In fact, a quick Google search leads to many press articles claiming a female advantage. For example, women came out as better multitaskers when researchers used fMRI scans to measure brain activity, computer tests to measure response times, and an exercise in which people walking on a treadmill had to simultaneously complete a cognitive task.
From analyzing decades of studies of men and women in other cognitive skills, we know that men’s and women’s performance is usually quite similar. Yet there are a few tasks in which men and women consistently outperform each other — on average: For example, it is well-established that men typically fare better when imagining what complex 3-dimensional figures would look like if they were rotated. In turn, women reliably outperform men in certain verbal abilities such as remembering a list of words or other verbal content.
While women’s supposed superiority at multitasking has garnered headlines, the scientific findings regarding sex differences in multitasking abilities are rather inconsistent: some studies found no sex differences while others reported either a male or femaleadvantage.
One reason for these inconsistent findings may be that, to date, the vast majority of studies have examined gender differences using artificial laboratory tasks that do not match with the complex and challenging multitasking activities of everyday life. Another possible culprit is that different researchers define multitasking differently.
To address these concerns, we developed a computerized task — The Meeting Preparation Task (CMPT) — that was designed to resemble everyday life activities and, at the same time, that was grounded in the most comprehensive theoretical model of multitasking activities. That would be the model of University College London professor Paul Burgess. He defines two types of multitasking — concurrent multitasking, in which you do two or more activities at the same time (talking on the phone while driving) and serial multitasking, in which you switch rapidly between tasks (preparing your next meeting and answering an email, being interrupted by a colleague, checking Twitter). It’s this latter type of multitasking that most of us do most often, and this type of multitasking we wanted to test.
In the CMPT, participants find themselves in a 3-dimensional space, consisting of three rooms: a kitchen, a storage room, and a main room with tables and a projection screen. They are required to prepare a room for a meeting, that is, they have to place objects such as the chairs, pencils, and drinks in the right location, while at the same time dealing with distractors such as a missing chair and a phone call, and to remember actions to be carried out in the future (e.g., give an object to an avatar, put the coffee on the meeting table at a certain time). This computerized simulation was originally created to allow for placing all the participants in the exact same conditions which permits to easily compare their performance and to avoid variables that may affect it (e.g., amount of noise). Such tasks also allow for measuring many variables at the same time. Finally, the task was designed to place participants in an unfamiliar situation, that is, in a situation where most people do not have any previous experience that would help them in carrying out the task.
Our idea with the present study was simple yet rare in the scientific literature: to use a validated task to assess whether there are gender differences in multitasking abilities in an everyday scenario in the general population. In order to do so, we recruited 66 females and 82 males aged between 18 and 60 years old and we asked them to carry out the CMPT. Thereafter, we compared the performance of both groups on several variables from the CMPT: overall accuracy of task completion (e.g., have participants placed the required objects on the table?), total time taken to complete the task, total distance traveled in the virtual environment, whether participants forgot to carry out tasks, and whether they managed the interrupting events (such as the phone call) in an optimal manner. We found no differences between men and women in terms of serial multitasking abilities.
We cannot exclude the possibility that there are no sex differences in serial multitasking abilities, but if they do exist, such differences are likely to be very small. There is a need for other studies that replicate these findings, or that investigate concurrent multitasking. But we think it is fair to conclude that the evidence for the stereotype that women are better multitaskers is, so far, fairly weak.
Julien Laloyaux is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bergen (Norway). His research interests include multitasking abilities and in particular in psychiatric and neurological disorders. Another main area of interest is the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of psychotic symptoms.
Frank Laroi is Professor of Psychology at the University of Bergen (Norway) and University of Liège (Belgium). His research interests include using state-of the-art technology in assessment and treatment contexts for various psychological disorders, especially schizophrenia and associated symptoms.
Marco Hirnstein is a researcher at the University of Bergen (Norway), whose main research focus is electric brain stimulation methods but has always been curious about cognitive sex differences.