In the war of the sexes, it is their perceived talent at multi-tasking that often gives women the upper hand. But the belief that they are better at juggling jobs than men is a myth, psychologists claim. Both sexes are equally poor at dividing their attention, according to research.
When doing something routine and well-practiced humans can do two things at once, like driving and listening to the radio
In fact, we can only cope with competing disciplines if it is a well-practised routine, such as chatting while driving.
Faced with a new and tricky challenge – like answering a tough question while walking – the human brain finds it impossible to deal effectively with two things at once.
Professor Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, said we would have to stop moving to think about the answer.
‘When we are trying to strain our memory or when we have to do something remotely difficult, we have to stop doing something else,’ he said. ‘Mental and physical energy is more connected than you imagine.’
Interference between competing areas of the brain is thought to be behind our poor performance.
Instead of actually multi-tasking, we switch rapidly between them.
Studies show any gender differences to be small, with women better in some circumstances and men in others. But we can become expert multi-taskers – by first perfecting each task alone before combining them slowly, said Professor Chater.
Professor Chater said: ‘Most of the things that we find reasonably challenging we can only do one at a time.
‘We think we are multi-tasking but in fact we are jumping from one task to the next quite rapidly, something we don’t have to do if we practice.
‘If we practice, we get very fluent at something and it requires almost no mental effort, like driving while listening to the radio.’
The professor said that when something difficult is added then any hope of doing two things at once is ended.
Professor Chater, an expert in behavioural science, conducted a series of experiments to reach his conclusion, including asking people questions while they were doing something else, such as walking.
He said: ‘We can’t keep mental processes entirely separate from each other. If we are doing routine things that is fine, but if we do something non-routine suddenly other parts of the brain start to engage and interfere with routine things like walking.’
Professor Chater reveals how this link between mental and physical energy has real implications – he described how a study of a parole board in Israel showed that their decisions were affected by having some food while working.
The findings were revealed by Professor Chater in the first of a weekly six-part series called The Human Zoo on BBC Radio 4.