Whether it is the result of anecdotal evidence or gender stereotyping, the belief that women are better at multitasking than men is very prevalent.
In fact, in a 2015 survey, 80% of the respondents were convinced that women had better multitasking abilities than men.
But what does the science say?
New research busts this myth. Patricia Hirsch, from the Institute of Psychology at Aachen University in Germany, and her colleagues set out to â€œput this stereotype to the test.â€
The researchers asked 96 participants (48 men and 48 women) to take part in two types of test: a task switching one and a dual tasking one.
â€˜No substantial gender differencesâ€™
The term multitasking describes the performance of a set of different tasks in a limited time period.
Engaging in multitasking requires a greater cognitive demand, as it involves a â€œtemporal overlap of the cognitive processes involved in performing these tasks.â€
In other words, doing several things at the same time requires more cognitive energy than doing them one at a time.
In reality, rather than doing several things at once, the human brain switches rapidly between tasks during multitasking, which puts a strain on attention and cognitive resources.
To test gender differences in multitasking abilities, Hirsch and colleagues asked the participants to engage in two sets of activities.
In the first set of experiments, called â€œconcurrent multitaskingâ€ or â€œdual tasking,â€ the researchers asked the participants to pay attention to two tasks at the same time.
In the second set of experiments, called â€œsequential multitaskingâ€ or â€œtask switching,â€ the participants had to switch attention between tasks.
For both testing paradigms, the participants had to â€œcategorize letters as consonant or vowel and digits as odd or evenâ€ using their index and middle fingers.
The team presented the stimuli to the left and right of a fixation point in the middle of a screen. These corresponded spatially to the keys that the participants had to press in order to categorize the letters and numbers.
â€œStimuli presented to the left of the fixation cross were categorized with the Y and X keys of a QWERTZ keyboard and stimuli appearing to the right of the fixation cross with the N and M keys.â€
In the concurrent multitasking setup, the researchers presented the stimuli at the same time, while in the sequential multitasking setup, they presented them alternately.
During the experiments, the researchers measured the participantsâ€™ reaction time and task accuracy.
The results of the experiments revealed that multitasking took its toll on reaction time and accuracy in men and women equally. The multitasking cost on these two measures was significant and comparable between men and women.
Additionally, across three underlying cognitive processes â€” working memory updating, task engagement and disengagement, and inhibition â€” men and women performed equally well, or equally bad, when they tried to multitask.
â€œThe present findings strongly suggest that there are no substantial gender differences in multitasking performance across task switching and dual task paradigms.â€
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