In the most-watched TED talk of all time—viewed, as I write this, more than 26 million times—Sir Ken Robinson says the following:
There’s a shaft of nerves that joins the two halves of the brain called the corpus callosum, and it’s thicker in women. … I think this is probably why women are better at multitasking. Because you are, aren’t you? There’s a raft of research, but I know it from my personal life.
He goes on to mention how his wife can cook dinner while doing a million other things. This is the go-to example when people talk or write about gender and multitasking. Perhaps, the thinking goes, this difference is rooted in our evolution: While men were off spearing elk, women were starting a fire, watching a toddler, kibitzing with one another, fending off a bear, etc. An article in The Telegraph (headline: “Scientists prove that women are better at multitasking than men”) shows a modern-day woman hanging on to a baby with one arm, cracking an egg, and talking on the phone. She doesn’t look terribly cheerful, but she is getting stuff done.
However it happened, the idea that women are better at multitasking seems pretty firmly ingrained in the popular consciousness. But is there really a “raft of research” out there to support it?
Not really. Or at least not yet.
A 2013 study did suggest that women are slightly superior at some kinds of multitasking. Researchers asked 120 women and 120 men to complete a series of computer tasks (for instance, noticing the number of circles on the screen). When working on a single task, men and women performed at the same level of accuracy and speed, but when they were forced to switch back and forth between tasks, researchers noticed a difference. They found that “mixing the two tasks made men slow down more so than women.” Advantage: women.
In another study, also from last year, 36 men and 36 women performed a similar computer task: watching several digital counters at the same time and pressing the space bar when any of them showed a certain set of numbers. In this case, researchers found that men were more consistent than women at identifying the right set of numbers at the right time. Advantage: men.
But you might wonder whether those computer exercises actually tell us much about real-world multitasking. A commentary on the second study raised that very issue, and pointed to research that examined the ability of people to talk on a cellphone while driving. It showed no differences between men and women. It’s a dumb thing to do regardless of gender.
Likewise, a 2012 study found that men and women both struggled when asked to switch between word search and Sudoku puzzles, and performed more accurately and efficiently when they could work on just one at a time. The researchers, Thomas Buser and Noemi Peter, both of the University of Amsterdam, weren’t initially interested in the gents-versus-ladies debate, just in whether multitasking inhibits performance. But, according to Buser, they were bothered by the repeated claims that women were better than men at multitasking based on what seemed to them thin evidence.
I asked Buser where he thinks things stand now. “The number of studies carried out so far is simply too small to come to a conclusive answer, especially because there are so many dimensions to multitasking,” he replied. “It is entirely possible that women are better at some kinds of multitasking but not at others, but so far there is very little evidence for any gender differences.”
Gigi Foster agrees. Foster, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, and Charlene Kalenkoski, an associate professor at Texas Tech University, asked men and women to complete, in a sense, virtual chores. One computer simulation showed a photo of a baby; a pacifier icon appeared at random spots on the screen. If you didn’t click the pacifier quickly enough, the photos of the baby became progressively less happy. Another simulation required participants to sort icons of clothes from a “never-ending pile of laundry,” an image that hits close to home for some of us.
The only gender difference they found was that, when carrying out both tasks simultaneously, men seemed to be somewhat superior at sorting virtual shirts while pacifying a virtual baby. That might be because, the authors theorize, “women are more likely than men to be distracted by, or anxious to avoid experiencing, unhappy baby faces and cries when performing the non-child-related task at the same time as the baby-care task.”
Like Buser, Foster doesn’t think we know enough yet to draw any conclusions: “Some people have surmised that women may be better at [multitasking] because they have more connections between the two halves of the brain, and/or because they get practice doing it while looking after kids at home, but neither of these things necessarily implies an innate female advantage in multitasking all tasks in all contexts.”
The one thing you can surmise from those and other studies is that multitasking tends to make everyone worse at everything. It slows us, makes us less accurate, and impairs our working memory. It’s tougher to spear an elk when your iPhone is buzzing.