It's official: Women really are better than men at juggling more than one task at once. At least, that's the claim being made by a team of British researchers. "We have all heard stories that either men can't multitask or that women are exceptionally good at multi-tasking," says British psychologist Keith Laws, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire. But Laws and his colleagues couldn't find any research that had been done to prove or disprove the theory. So they set up a study to settle the matter. Here's a quick guide to what they found:
How can the researchers make such a generalization?
They gathered 100 students — 50 men and 50 women — and gave them eight minutes to perform three tasks at the same time. They all got the same tasks, which included solving simple math problems, finding restaurants on a map, and devising a strategy for finding a lost key in an imaginary field. Then, while they were juggling those assignments, the subjects received a telephone call, which they could answer or ignore. If they answered, they were asked some general knowledge questions while they continued the original tasks.
And what happened?
The women had few problems handling everything at once. In fact, 70 percent of them performed better than their average male counterparts. The men handled the math questions without many problems, and did OK pinpointing the map locations. But the women put them to shame when it came to the most complicated task, developing a plan for finding the lost key.
What was the big difference?
Men didn't approach the job logically. They just jumped into the middle of the field and dashed around looking for the key, never managing to cover the entire area. Women, however, tended to start in one corner, and methodically search the whole field moving out in concentric circles or lines. "It shows that women are better at being able to stand back," says Laws, "and reflect for a moment while they are juggling other things."
Why might women be better at multitasking?
Perhaps it's evolutionary, suggested CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a 2001 interview. "While ancient men were responsible primarily for hunting and gathering, women had to tend to the children, the house and all the other activities of daily living," he said. "Over the years, women may have retained this ability, translating into an improved ability to multitask."
So if I'm a woman, multitasking makes me more efficient?
Actually, probably not. There is evidence that multitasking is a drag on productivity for pretty much everyone, regardless of gender. The reason for that relates to basic structure of brain: The right and left hemispheres cooperate when working on a single task, says multitasking researcher Dr. Etienne Koechlin of France's National Institute of Health and Medical Research. "But in two tasks, one hemisphere covers the reward of one task and the other hemisphere covers the reward of the other." That, unfortunately, applies to both genders.