To test the hypothesis, researchers designed two experiments on multi-tasking to examine how well people can switch tasks quickly and efficiently.
There are at least two distinct types of multi-tasking abilities, according to the researchers. The first type is the skill of being able to deal with multiple task demands without the need to carry out the involved tasks simultaneously. Researchers call this “task switching.” A good example of this type of multi-tasking is carried out by administrative assistants, who answer phone calls, fill in paperwork, sort incoming faxes and mail, and typically do not carry out any of these tasks simultaneously.
A second type of multi-tasking ability is required when two types of information must be processed or carried out simultaneously. An example of the latter category is drawing a circle with one hand while drawing a straight line with the other hand. While humans have no difficulty carrying out each of these tasks individually, drawing a circle with one hand and drawing a straight line with the other simultaneously is nearly impossible.
The researchers were only concerned with examining the first kind of multi-tasking, task-switching, because it is far more common in the real world.
The first lab-based, computer experiment indicated that, in general, people are not good at multitasking, slowing down when they were asked to do more one task. Both men and women slowed down considerably when asked to engage in task-switching in a computer-based experimental task.
Women did slow down less than men, implying they may have an advantage when faced with multitasking situations that don’t require the tasks be done simultaneously.
The researchers then went on to compare men and women in an experiment designed to better simulate real world multitasking.
Participants were asked to complete three different tasks in eight minutes. On top of this, during the task a phone would ring. If they chose to answer it, the participants would have to answer general knowledge questions.
Although there was no difference between men and women when the entire experiment was analyzed, women did score better on the one task that required them to devise strategies for locating a lost key.
”Using two very different experimental set ups, we found that women have an advantage over men in specific aspects of multitasking situations,” said Gijsbert Stoet, Ph.D., author of the paper.
In general, however, the research showed that men and women are both equally bad at multitasking. Women were shown to be just a little less bad.
“The lack of other empirical studies, though, should caution against drawing strong conclusions; instead, we hope that other researchers will aim to replicate and elaborate on our findings,” he said.
Source: Biomed Central