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Often, the term 'multitasking' is applied to very busy and 'wired' people. There is an adage that women multitask better than men.

My question is, do we actually multitask? If so, what are the cognitive processes that allow this?

Or, is it a case that we momentarily put a task on hold to do another and it has more to do with a well organised short term memory of tasks?

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I think it depends on how you define multi tasking. Certainly we can listen to words while we watch the mouth, processing two different streams and integrating them. But if you play two different audio streams into the ears, most people can only focus on one of them at a time. With a little bit of practice, one can pat the head as they rub the belly. There was a study that showed that office multitaskers made significant sacrifices to work quality. Another study shows worse reaction times for drivers when they are on the cell phone. –  Keegan Keplinger Jun 24 '13 at 2:45
    
@KeeganKeplinger I would be very interested in those studies - do you have links to them? Thank you for this! –  user3554 Jun 24 '13 at 2:53
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I can't guarantee that I'll have time to be more thorough anytime soon, or I'd make it an official answer with references. If I find time, I'll do so, but I welcome anyone else to dig up the resources (I'd probably just go to google and/or google scholar myself). –  Keegan Keplinger Jun 24 '13 at 14:39
    
+1 @KeeganKeplinger the answer depends critically on how you define multitasking. Depending on the definition it is either commonplace & essential, or illusory and impossible. For a relatively accessible 'cog sci' overview and theory/model see 'The Multitasking Mind' by Salvucci and Taatgen, or google those authors. –  Spike0xff Jun 13 at 1:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Scientists studying the matter generally believe multitasking, and women's superiority at it, to be a myth. Men come out slightly better multitaskers than women but there's not really any meaningful difference. The way it's defined is critical though; it's being able to do two things that typically require focal attention at the exact same time. For example, driving and carrying on an important conversation on the phone. In general, people are quite bad at any such multi-tasking.

When you interview women they tend to believe the myth that women are better but it's based on a different definition of multitasking. They often mean that they'll start one task that can sort of self run, like putting the laundry in, and while that's happening go and work on a letter they've been writing to a client or some other task. They would tend to say they do that all of the time. There's not much research into whether men or women are better at that because that's generally not the kind of multitasking researchers have cared about. I should think an investigation into planning potentially overlapping tasks would be how you'd test this.

In addition, as one of the articles below mentions, there seems to be a general belief that while neither sex is particularly good at it, women actually do it more frequently. That too, hasn't really been studied as far as I know.

Here are some related newsy articles:

Why men (yes, men) are better multitaskers

Are Men or Women Better at Multitasking?

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Here's the link to an interview to a Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass, where he answers questions about the topic. http://www.npr.org/2013/05/10/182861382/the-myth-of-multitasking

Some links to one of his published research papers: http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583.short (I recommend searching in Google Scholar for other papers by him, to the people interested in the topic.)

I quote a fragment from the interveiw which I consider very relevant to the question:

People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted.

They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even - they're even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they're actually worse at it. So they're pretty much mental wrecks.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Wow. But they don't think they are.

NASS: No. You're...

FLATOW: And that's the danger, right?

NASS: That's right. No, they actually think they're more productive. They actually think they tend to - and most notably, they think they can shut it off, and that's been the most striking aspect of this research.

We - the people we talk with continually said, look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused. And unfortunately, they've developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They're suckers for irrelevancy. They just can't keep on task.

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I like to think of multitasking as rapid task switching. See Pashler's (2000) article for the implications of "multitasking."

References

  • Pashler, H. (2000). Task switching and multitask performance. To appear in Monsell, S., and Driver, J. (editors). Attention and Performance XVIII: Control of mental processes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
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Anyone willing to summarize conclusions of paper ? :) –  Grzegorz Wierzowiecki May 18 at 10:14

I think I read in some book or other, maybe called Mindfulness, by E.J.Langer (ISBN 0201523418), that William James (?) taught himself to write about one topic while discussing another topic. However, he could not remember what he wrote about afterward, and the writing was not very compelling in any case.

I think it may be possible to do more than one thing at once, but not well.

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