Men are better than women in tests where several tasks had to be solved at the same time. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Men are better than women in tests where several tasks had to be solved at the same time. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Men are better at multitasking

Everyone says that women are better at doing several things simultaneously. Swedish researchers put it to the test.

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Of course women are better at multitasking, you might think, visualising a mother putting a fish au gratin in the oven while breastfeeding her infant and texting a neighbour about the volunteer work next Thursday.

“Is this really so?” queried Timo Mäntylä, professor at the University of Stockholm.

When he and his colleagues studied the matter it turned out that men are not only as good as women in tests where several tasks had to be solved at the same time. On the whole they were actually better.

At least when compared to women in the ovulation phase of their menstrual cycle.

Four simultaneous tasks

Mäntylä and colleagues tested gender differences by getting 160 women and men to perform four separate tasks simultaneously.

The participants were required to follow three digital clock-like displays running at different speeds and note when the “clocks” reached specific times.

At the same time they had to keep track of a stream of common Swedish forenames and signal when a name was repeated in intervals of four, for example with the series: “Kalle-Lisa-Mattias-Svea-Kalle”.

The researchers also tested the individual participant’s working memory and spatial comprehension skills.

The results will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

Men were better

Humiliating as it may be for half the population, the results couldn’t confirm the popular notion that women are superior at keeping track of several things at the same time. On the contrary, men’s results were better on average.

They also out-performed women at solving tasks that tested spatial perception. Researchers think abilities in handling spatial relationships and multitasking are connected.

But this complicates the issue. Women’s capabilities in such spatial tests weren’t constant.

Menstruation evens out the differences

“Earlier studies show that women’s spatial talents vary with their menstrual cycle, with peak capacity during menstruation and lowest around ovulation,” says Mäntylä in a press release issued by the University of Stockholm.

This new Swedish study reconfirms the role of the menstrual cycle.

“The results show a clear difference in multitasking between men and women during ovulation. But this effect is eliminated for women during their menstrual periods.”

It should also be noted that the researchers encountered wide individual variations in spatial perception and multitasking abilities among both sexes.

The researchers conclude that such variances probably link to working memory proficiency, in other words an individual’s capacity for temporary storage and manipulation of information.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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