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Maybe men aren’t such bad multi-taskers after all


September 26, 2018   by Jason Contant


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Despite popular stereotypes, women are not better multi-taskers than men, suggests a new blog from Harvard Business Review.

“We cannot exclude the possibility that there are no sex differences in serial multitasking abilities, but if they exist, such differences are likely to be very small,” wrote authors Julien Laloyaux, Frank Laroi and Marco Hirnstein in the blog Research: Women and Men Are Equally Bad at Multitasking. While there is a need for further studies, or a study that investigates concurrent multitasking, “we think it is fair to conclude that the evidence for the stereotype that women are better multitaskers is, so far, fairly weak.”

The vast majority of studies on multi-tasking have examined gender differences using artificial laboratory tasks that do not match the complex and challenging multi-tasking activities of everyday life, leading to inconsistent findings. As well, researchers define multi-tasking differently.

To address the concerns, the researchers developed a computerized meeting preparation task (CMPT) that was designed to resemble everyday life activities. The project was grounded in the most comprehensive theoretical model of multitasking activities, said the blog, published Wednesday.

That model defines two types of multitasking:

  • Concurrent – a person does two or more activities at the same time, such as talking on the phone while driving
  • Serial – a person switches rapidly between tasks, such as preparing a meeting and answering an email, being interrupted by a colleague and checking Twitter. This is the type of multitasking most people do most often, and the one that the researchers tested.

In the CMPT, participants found themselves in a virtual 3D 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 by placing chairs, pencils and drinks in the right location, while at the same time dealing with distractions such as a missing chair and a phone call, and to remember actions to be carried out in the future (give an object to an avatar, put the coffee on the meeting table at a certain time, etc.)

The researchers recruited 66 women and 82 men between the ages of 18 and 60 to carry out the CMPT. They then compared the performance of both groups on several variables:

  • overall accuracy of task completion
  • total time taken to complete the task
  • total distance travelled in the virtual environment
  • whether participants forgot to carry out the task
  • whether they managed the interrupting events (such as the phone call) in an optimal manner

“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. We found no differences between men and women in terms of serial multitasking abilities.”