There are some recurring questions that I tend to get when I give public lectures on the neuroscience of magic and illusions. Examples include the explanations for the latest viral illusions making the rounds on social media, the effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain, and one of my personal favorites: whether there is any truth to the common belief that women are better multitaskers than men. My answer is sometimes facetious—I reply that, if it were true that women are better multitaskers than men, then there would be separate magic shows for men and women, which is not the case. The reason being that one of the main ways in which magicians misdirect spectators is by forcing them to multitask (not something the human brain can do), thereby dividing their attention between several different objects or locations. If women were able to split their attention without a concurring decrease in perceptual performance, it follows that they would see through the magic—and should find the secret methods behind it—better than men do. Because men and women enjoy the same magic shows, it must be that both genders are equally terrible at multitasking. Admittedly, this is a just so answer, so who knows, right?
It turns out, though, according to a study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE, that my intuition has been correct and neither gender can multitask.
Psychologist Patricia Hirsch, and her collaborators at RWTH Aachen University and University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany, set out to find out if the stereotype that women are better multitaskers than men might be backed by empirical evidence. To find out, the team had experimental participants (48 women and 48 men) conduct either concurrent or sequential multitasking. Both tasks required participants to categorize letters as consonant versus vowel, and numbers as odd versus even. An important feature of the study was that, in addition to collecting performance measures (accuracy and reaction times) in the tasks above, the researchers also accounted for possible underlying gender differences in working memory, processing speed, spatial abilities, and fluid intelligence.
The results indicated that, whereas both concurrent and sequential multitasking imposed substantial costs on performance, the deterioration applied to both genders equally. Even when controlling for potential differences in cognitive abilities that might support multitasking, “differences in multitasking costs across men and women remained absent.”
Though the scientists are careful to point out the potential real-world limitations of their study, the available evidence implies that the popular belief that managing children, household and jobs gives women a multitasking edge is unwarranted.