The Multitasking Myth

14 Sep

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

Busy business people working hard on his desk in office with a lot of paper work, Business conceptual on hard working.

Can women multitask better than men? Before you read any further, stop for a moment and consider that question: What do you really think?
It probably won’t surprise you that this is a question social scientists have given plenty of attention. Nor may it surprise you that their answers point both ways.
The argument against is perhaps the most interesting. This tells us that women are not better at multitasking than men because no-one really multitasks. The research evidence here is very clear, we can only ever give our full attention to one task at once.

When we think we’re multitasking, what we are really doing is rapidly shifting our attention from one task to another. This shuffling of tasks often makes us think that we are simultaneously attending to them but that is just an illusion. When we shuffle between tasks our performance on all of them decreases, and the likelihood of making mistakes goes up. This is why driving and talking on your phone (with or without a hands-free kit) is a bad idea.

What this shows is that we have our metaphors about attention all wrong. It’s common to hear attention referred to as a kind of internet ‘bandwidth’ but in reality attention is much more like a phone line. If you want to take an incoming call, you first have to put the current caller on hold. Attention is both finite and sequential.

The reason why some people think women are able to multitask successfully is that there is some evidence that women can switch between tasks faster than men. This comes from a series of experiments that showed mixing up a number of tasks slowed down men’s performance more than women’s. Some people believe this demonstrates that women are better at what is known as ‘thin slicing’ than men. That is, the ability to make very quick decisions drawn from small amounts of information.

So the view from the social scientists seems to be that while women can’t really multitask better than men, they are better at the tricks our brains play to provide the illusion that we can.
Yet if we shift our attention from psychology to sociology, the social science here gets even more interesting. Sociologists are less interested in what the experiments tell us about men and women and multitasking and more interested in what those things say about the world we live in. This perspective raises important questions like ‘why have we made a fetish of multitasking?’ and ‘why do we care if women or men are better at it?’

The first of those is about the general appeal of multitasking and the answer seems obvious. In a world where there are increasingly blurred lines between work and home, and where technology provides the ability to combine tasks in new ways, multitasking seems a virtuous way to be more productive. In this view, multitasking is seen as a way to respond to an increasingly time-poor world.

At the same time, we now know that our brains crave novelty. They have evolved to seek it out, and they reward us when we find it. Novelty is correlated with the activation of the dopamine system in the brain. This provides a powerful reward mechanism for doing the things evolution has wired us all to do. So while the multitasking myth explains why you shouldn’t mix driving and talking on your phone, your brain’s craving for novelty explains why you want to.

The marriage of technology and the reconfiguring of work explains why we have made multitasking a virtue. But it also explains why it’s convenient to believe that women can do it better than men. Over the last 50 years or so we have seen a radical change in the working lives of women. Their participation in paid work has increased significantly, and with it a ‘double burden’ of juggling work and home-life. Women who were raised to believe they could do anything, found themselves in a world where they were asked to do everything. In this world, is it any surprise that we came to believe that women are natural multitaskers and much better at it than men?

As any social scientist will tell you, social norms are cultural products. What we see as ‘common sense’ reveals a great deal about the world we live in. In this regard, our belief in multitasking tells us much more about who we are than we might like to admit. But is this ability to get behind those taken-for-granted assumptions that makes the social sciences so valuable to all of us. Because, as George Orwell noted, to see what’s in front of our noses needs a constant struggle.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

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