Aachen, Germany – Women are no better at multitasking than men, a new study by researchers at a German university has found after conducting tests on 48 women and 48 men.
According to the team led by Patricia Hirsch of the RWTH Aachen University, both sexes worked more slowly and less accurately when required to perform two tasks at the same time. The tasks involved numbers and letters.
Reporting their findings in the journal Plos One, the team said they found no difference between the sexes, although they noted that previous studies had come to very different conclusions.
In some cases, women did better, and in others, men. Some of the earlier studies also found no difference.
The Aachen team said the tasks set could have caused sex differences to show up, as no single experiment could possible test all types of multitasking, along with the skills needed for them.
Subjects were asked to identify letters appearing on a screen as vowels or consonants and then to determine whether numbers were even or odd.
In some of the tests, they had to perform both tasks at the same time, and in others switch rapidly from one task to the other.
"Our results do not confirm the widely believed prejudice than women are better at multitasking than men," the team said, at least not in the tests they conducted as exemplary for certain challenges.
Hirsch identified three everyday categories: updating working memory, switching from one task to another and filtering out irrelevant information.
An example of the first is driving from a zone with one speed limit into another. Switching between writing an email and making a phone call is an example of the second. Ignoring information at a traffic light for turning traffic when proceeding straight exemplifies the third.
The team acknowledged the limits of its research. "The current study does not permit conclusions on differences between the sexes in other multitasking situations," it said.
Lutz Jaencke, a neuropsychologist from the University of Zurich who participated in the study, said differences between the sexes would not be logical in evolutionary terms.
"There is no genetic ultimate reason for assuming that the Homo sapiens woman was better pre-programmed 150 000 years ago to be basically better at multitasking than a man. That’s completely unreasonable," Jaencke said.
"Multitasking is something that we humans can do extremely badly," he said. The human brain is designed to concentrate on the matter in hand. "It has to suppress irrelevant information in order to allow the relevant stuff through."
Jaencke noted a general problem with previous studies. Those finding significant differences were widely reported, while those finding none were often not published.