June 3, 2014

The notion that women are better than men at multitasking.

"There’s a shaft of nerves that joins the two halves of the brain called the corpus callosum, and it’s thicker in women. … I think this is probably why women are better at multitasking. Because you are, aren’t you? There’s a raft of research, but I know it from my personal life."

So blathered Sir Ken Robinson in a TED talk with 26+ million views, and of course that doesn't mean that women are better than men at multitasking. It mostly suggests that people like to believe that women are better than men at multitasking. I'm drawn to think about why people like to believe that. Who benefits? Is it female ego-boosting? Is it another trick of the patriarchy that hoodwinks women into doing the housework and child-rearing?

A shaft of nerves and a raft of research... a shaft and a raft... It rhymes, but... to see just how pathetic the crap on the raft is, read this.

IN THE COMMENTS: Biff writes:
The corpus callosum thing really is junk science.
A few studies have indicated that, on average, it is thicker in females than in males, suggesting that perhaps there are more connections between hemispheres in females than in males. However, other studies that have failed to find a significant difference. Complicating the issue, men's brains are, on average larger than women's brains (though that is rarely mentioned with the same glee that we hear about female corpus callosi), so male corpus callosi actually tend to be physically larger than female corpus callosi. It is only when the size of the corpus callosum is expressed as a ratio to total brain size that the female c.c. may be larger. Further confounding the issue, there often are subtle differences in shape between male and female c.c.s, which makes direct comparison somewhat more challenging than might otherwise be expected. In any case, to the degree that there is a consistent, measurable difference in the nature of the corpus callosum between the genders, it is objectively small, and there is no direct evidence to support the subjectively proposed, feel-good advantages that this presumed difference bestows upon women.

I used to teach neuroanatomy at an Ivy League medical school, and when this topic would come up, I would ask students to cite the evidence for the anatomical finding (which was a very useful exercise in fostering critical reading of the scientific literature) and the evidence for the functional finding (which became a useful exercise in criticizing the basis of conventional wisdom). Toward the end of the class, I would tease the students by saying that there was as much real evidence that a thicker corpus callosum in females resulted in erratic, scatter-brained behavior as anything seen as more positive, and asking how comfortable they were with making sweeping statements about gender behavior based upon differences of a millimeter or so of brain tissue.
As I've long observed, whatever the evidence is, when it comes to sex difference, whatever is found to be true of the female is interpreted as positive. 

49 comments:

bandmeeting said...

I know two guys that couldn't multitask in order to save their lives. You could come screaming into the room to tell them that the house is burning down but they wouldn't be able to even think about it until they finished what they were doing. People like that can be quite frustrating.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

If you're so damn good at multitasking then why has it been taking so long to get our comments approved?!?

( On a serious note, I hope that nothing is wrong, and that the delays are due to you having found better things to do than listen to us bitch and moan all day. )

Ann Althouse said...

@Ignorance We were on the road, but we're back now.

Sorun said...

"our evolution: While men were off spearing elk, women were starting a fire, watching a toddler, kibitzing with one another, fending off a bear"

What evolved characteristics do human females have from all of the bear fending offing?

Henry said...

Nobody is good at multitasking.

Henry said...

Okay. So multitasking success depends on the task. As we see here.

RecChief said...

actually, the people that seem best at multitasking, in my experience, seem to be the ones who have ADD. What they used to term as 'hyper'. Judging by what the school suggested with my boys, I'd say males are better at multitasking than females.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

What evolved characteristics do human females have from all of the bear fending offing?

Maybe that's why they're so unbearable?

MarkW said...

One of the things we can tell pretty much for sure already from the inconclusive studies is that if there ultimately turns out to be any consistent, measurable male-female difference at all it will be a small one. Big effects are easy to see, small effects require multiple, carefully designed studies to tease out.

As for the blathering -- nothing more than ingratiation via flattery (which is surprisingly still effective after all these eons).

rhhardin said...

It's not so much multitasking but considering everything at once as one never-ending task.

Strelnikov said...

That must be why men get things done and women, as well as any number of feminized men, love the process.

bleh said...

I believe it's true, but it's actually a curse for women and interferes with their ability to do certain things. My inability to multitask enables me to focus for long stretches on singular, mind-numbing tasks. You know, office work.

Althouse, you might be on to something.

tim in vermont said...

Picking berries and raising toddlers is an entirely different skill set than tracking game. One thing, the berries don't move from year to year so navigation by landmark is acceptable, whereas game is almost always on the move, so navigating spatially and taking time factors into it is essential.

But hey, it reflects better on women to say they are "better" at something, so there it is.

PB said...

Why bother with actual data from experiment when you've got Sir Ken! That's gotta be a consensus!

Mike (MJB Wolf) said...

No one can really multitask, all we can do is shift attention from one thing to another quickly. I've read elsewhere that the "wiring differences" described by Sir Ken as a "shaft" (how machocentric is that term?) is actually a key difference in the way women and men process thoughts. Women make more emotional connections and evaluate threats/opportunities/information through their brain's "hardware" much differently than men. Sometimes this is simplistically noted as linear vs. non-linear thinking. But it is, of course, much more complicated than could be expressed in a single paragraph, much less a trite phrase.

There are differences. These difference go way beyond our external sexual equipment and affect they way we feel, move, think, learn, remember, plan and execute everything in our lives. Sex is NOT a social construct.

Biff said...

The corpus callosum thing really is junk science. A few studies have indicated that, on average, it is thicker in females than in males, suggesting that perhaps there are more connections between hemispheres in females than in males. However, other studies that have failed to find a significant difference. Complicating the issue, men's brains are, on average larger than women's brains (though that is rarely mentioned with the same glee that we hear about female corpus callosi), so male corpus callosi actually tend to be physically larger than female corpus callosi. It is only when the size of the corpus callosum is expressed as a ratio to total brain size that the female c.c. may be larger. Further confounding the issue, there often are subtle differences in shape between male and female c.c.s, which makes direct comparison somewhat more challenging than might otherwise be expected. In any case, to the degree that there is a consistent, measurable difference in the nature of the corpus callosum between the genders, it is objectively small, and there is no direct evidence to support the subjectively proposed, feel-good advantages that this presumed difference bestows upon women.

I used to teach neuroanatomy at an Ivy League medical school, and when this topic would come up, I would ask students to cite the evidence for the anatomical finding (which was a very useful exercise in fostering critical reading of the scientific literature) and the evidence for the functional finding (which became a useful exercise in criticizing the basis of conventional wisdom). Toward the end of the class, I would tease the students by saying that there was as much real evidence that a thicker corpus callosum in females resulted in erratic, scatter-brained behavior as anything seen as more positive, and asking how comfortable they were with making sweeping statements about gender behavior based upon differences of a millimeter or so of brain tissue.

Rocketeer said...

It's to men's distinct advantage for women to think they're superior at multitasking. Women wear themselves out to keep the perception alive. Meanwhile all necessary work gets done, and men remain well rested.

You've come a long way, baby.

Unknown said...

Nobody actually multi-tasks. Some people are just able to concentrate on something for longer periods of time than others.

Biff said...

PS. Similar kinds of studies suggest that men tend to have slightly larger amygdalas than women. The amygdalas (one on each side of the brain) are involved in emotion processing, certain types of learning, etc. I have yet to see a TED talk about how men's larger amygdalas make men better at anything useful. (...And I'd scoff at the claim, if such a talk existed. Convincing behavioral data connecting to size to function just doesn't exist.)

SGT Ted said...

What it means is that women are more prone to not pay full attention to the task at hand.

SGT Ted said...

The only sex differences we are allowed to talk about without being called a sexist pig are those that make females look better than males.

This should be called "female privilege" but is deceptively called "being polite".

n.n said...

It's not multithreading. It's multitasking. It's not concurrent. The completion of tasks are still distributed in time. Perhaps the success of this process can be attributed to motivation (e.g. responsibility) and opportunity (e.g. uncommitted time).

As for the perception of a relative difference, men have traditionally engaged in monolithic tasks. Whereas women have traditionally, by social and biological convention, engaged in atomic tasks.

Ann Althouse said...

"our evolution: While men were off spearing elk, women were starting a fire, watching a toddler, kibitzing with one another, fending off a bear"…"

That was written to mock the assertion about evolution.

And note that "off spearing an elk" could easily be broken into a lot of "tasks" like "kibitzing with one another" and watching out for various dangers and taking care of your own physical needs and the needs of your comrades.

tim maguire said...

There's no such thing as multitasking. What there is is quickly switching form one task to another--generally to the detriment of all tasks.

If women are "better at multitasking," it's just a nice way of saying they can't focus on what they're doing.

Ellen Guon said...

No one actually multi-tasks... as said elsewhere in the comments, some people are better at switching between processes, but no one is good at it. Here's a simple test of that... say the first ten letters of the alphabet aloud. Then say the numbers from one to ten. Then alternate, as in, "A, 1, B, 2", as quickly as you can.

rhhardin said...

Multitasking is why your computer has mood swings.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

And note that "off spearing an elk" could easily be broken into a lot of "tasks" like "kibitzing with one another" and watching out for various dangers and taking care of your own physical needs and the needs of your comrades.

Hey!?!

What happened on the Serengeti stays on the Serengeti!

Bruce Hayden said...

My inability to multitask enables me to focus for long stretches on singular, mind-numbing tasks.

I think that brings up something, and that is that the opposite, to some extent, to multitasking is the ability to focus. I can't multitask worth a darn, but can focus like few others I have met. The last couple of nights, I have found myself starting to fall asleep around 2 or 3, sitting at my computer working on some VBA code. Where have the last 3-4 hours gone? They just disappeared. Indeed, the last two days disappeared that way, but I got the project done. And, this is one of the reasons that I was so good at programming, and am pretty good at writing and prosecuting patent applications - the ability to completely focus for long periods of time. But, the flip side, is that I have a decently long spool-up and spool-down time, which is part of why I am so bad at multitasking. The first time that I realized that I had this ability to focus was when I was up on a benchmark in the Twin Cities, told the other guys good-bye for the night at about 7, and next thing I knew, they were coming back in, at 7 the next morning. The result though was that I was now the third person in the company to understand a foot thick listing of assembler code - the other two were the developers who spent their lives maintaining it. And, that allowed me to fix the pesky problem that I was working on.

And, yes, I am probably in the category of not noticing when the house is burning down. My partner tries to carry on a conversation about what is going on on TV, and I may mumble a response to her. But, more and more, she is discovering that I miss most of what she said when I am on the computer (even responding to Ann's blogs). And, not surprisingly, women don't seem to like this.

I do think that males may have some advantages at this over females, but some ability to multitask seems learned - I have watched females struggle to learn to do it.

Still, this may also be part of the reason that most successful inventors are male, as are the large majority of Nobel laureates (in the sciences and medicine). But, it may also mean that females may ultimately turn out to be better doctors, and maybe even lawyers. Both seem to require an ability to switch quickly between topics. Also, males tend greatly to be the ones to build companies, and currently to run them. In short, males create most of the wealth, with their ability, or maybe necessity, to focus, and the women spend it. Which may be the way it is supposed to be.

jimbino said...

It seems to me that the plural of "corpus callosum" is "corpora callosa, and that the plural of "octopus" is "octopodes."

Bruce Hayden said...

Then alternate, as in, "A, 1, B, 2", as quickly as you can.

I can say them in order quickly. And that comes in quite handy with Sudoku (though, I am trying to train myself to see the missing numbers without counting, and am somewhat successful at that endeavor). I do both letters and numbers in groups of three, with one group of one at the end (which works really well in Sudoku - but I was doing it that way long before). But, when I alternated, I came out to the end one off. Missed a letter somewhere. And, it took a bit of thinking to get even that.

Illuninati said...

Since he teaches neuroanatomy, I'm wondering if Biff has heard anyone say that females have more bilateral speech representation than men? Years ago I heard that along with the claim that women have a proportionately larger corpus callosum and assumed that women who distributed their speech bilaterally probably needed more corpus callosum space to unite the two centers. Now it appears that both "facts" are opened to question. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/127/8/1845.abstract

Joe Schmoe said...

A raft of research is dangerously close to BINDERS full of women...

Unknown said...

So if women are better at multitasking does that mean I can get a reach around WHILE she's making me a sammich? Asking for a friend.

Biff said...

Illuminati wrote: Since he teaches neuroanatomy, I'm wondering if Biff has heard anyone say that females have more bilateral speech representation than men?

I've heard it, but I've never looked into it in any detail, so I don't have enough information to hold a position on it. I would not be surprised if there were some truth to it, nor would I be surprised if it were utterly disproven.

I want to emphasize that I do not doubt that there are important differences, on average, between the brains of males and females, and that those differences sometimes may manifest themselves behaviorally. (It's uncontroversial, nearly banal, to say that about non-primate species.) It's just that we have to be extremely careful about transforming precise observations about simple physical characteristics into sweeping behavioral generalizations, particularly when such generalizations might be used and abused for any number of political or social engineering purposes. When we do that, we give short shrift to the complexity of biology and to ourselves. It's as ignorant to do so as it is for philosophers to hear of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a principle with rather narrow applicability within the world of physics, and then to proclaim that nothing is truly knowable.

Full disclosure: I haven't taught neuroanatomy in more than a decade, so I'm not fully current. That said, I haven't seen anything that would change my position on the corpus callosum question, and anything big enough to lead to such a change would have made a big enough splash that I'm sure I would have heard of it. I also am not an expert on Latin, and I believe that jimbino is correct in pluralizing c.c. as "corpora callosa," as opposed to my butchering of the language.

jr565 said...

Neither side is particularly good at multitasking. Mulitasking is actually a fools idea. You need to focus on tasks at hand, and if you are juggling things you can't focus to the degree you should. In certain cases this can lead to death.
If women were so much better why are there so many accidents involving women putting on makeup while driving?
Not to fault women here. Multitasking while driving is dumb whoever does it.
One of my friends once drove at 80 miles an hour with me in the car on the highway checking his blackberry messages. So he was texting emails while driving.
Obviously we didn't crash, so hats off to him, but that is crazy.
Even absent emergency scenarios its' generally not a good idea o

Locke said...

n.n said...
"It's not multithreading. It's multitasking. It's not concurrent. The completion of tasks are still distributed in time. "

Interesting - and I supposed, technically true but different in practice. Sure many tasks are purely effort based (effort meaning both physical and mental). But a great deal of what we do has autonomous elements. Cooking is a great example - I'd consider that multithreading. Multiple processes are going on simultaneously - you manage them properly by stepping in to check or so something to each at the proper time.

To a large degree, I think what is going on with good multitaskers is that they have a really good internal clock to know when to switch their attention.

I wouldn't begin to guess what degree sex plays into it, if any. I know that my wife is great at it and I always burn stuff if I have more than one thing going on at once. Becoming a stay at home dad, the added practice has helped - but only slightly.

Ann Althouse said...

"'And note that "off spearing an elk" could easily be broken into a lot of "tasks" like "kibitzing with one another" and watching out for various dangers and taking care of your own physical needs and the needs of your comrades.' Hey!?! What happened on the Serengeti stays on the Serengeti!"

Gives new meaning to the phrase "off spearing an elk."

Bob Ellison said...

Mike said "No one can really multitask, all we can do is shift attention from one thing to another quickly."

That sounds like a statement from a software engineer.

I think the human brain works differently, and in my experience, women have tended to be better at managing multiple tasks than men, and men have tended to be better at single-tasking.

At big trade shows, the organizers are almost all women. The presenters are almost all men.

Joe Schmoe said...

A raft of research is dangerously close to BINDERS full of women...

n.n said...

Locke:

Cooking is a semi-autonomous task. It has a preparatory stage, followed by occasional oversight. The processor(s) in consideration is a woman or man (i.e. conscious), not a mechanical device which operates independently or programmatically.

The reason to distinguish between multithreading and multitasking is to specifically address the perception of efficiency associated with completion of tasks. It's the same illusion of performance that single processor devices are capable of simulating when operated at higher frequencies or executing atomic tasks.

As for time or resource management, it is an acquired skill; but, there is an outstanding question of nature and nature, which may be correlated with gender, and creates a favorable bias.

n.n said...

re: interpreted as positive

That's not a patriarchal representation of women. The patriarchy recognizes both the positive and negative qualities of women. There are few gods or god-like behaviors in the patriarchy. Perhaps the interpretive process is a product of a matriarchy, which seeks to smooth dysfunctional behaviors. An expression of the maternal instinct applied to the greater world.

Anonymous said...

I'm not better at multitasking; mostly because I've insisted my whole life that what I was doing was important enough to deserve my full attention. A lot of women don't have that luxury or conceit. Therefore, I never developed that skill. It's a small thing, but when extrapolated over a lifetime, it makes a difference.

Bob Boyd said...

I started juggling clay balls while I'm driving to work and by the time I get there I'm supposed to have finished three small figurines. Usually I make farm animals or busts of famous composers.
After several months on this program my corpus callosum is massive, but I also now have too many shoes and feel its my prerogative to change my mind.

Joe said...

I can multitask and in a multi-threaded way. In fact, I can't turn it off. I constantly have multiple thought streams in my head. It isn't unusual for me to be playing a game, watching TV and surfing a half dozen web pages at the same time.

I have found that concentrated reading tends to block out hearing comprehension and vice versa.

A friend of mine has a very good sense of direction unless he's talking out loud to someone else in the car, then it goes to hell.

Yet, we all multitask all the time. Have you watched TV while cooking? Fixed a car while listening to the radio. How many times have you been having a conversation about one topic while solving a problem of something completely different? I do it all the time and in no way think I'm unique.

I have concluded, however, that there are many people who literally can't multitask. They have one stream of conscious, but that doesn't make them indicative of everyone either.

tds said...

men became better at multitasking over millions of years of evolution. they were namely presented with task of simultaneous fondling of 3 main areas on female body.

Females at the same time had to fondle only one area on the male body.

traditionalguy said...

When the task is thinking from a strategic perspective while simultaneously adjusting to multiple tactical events you need a man. The women just hire the men to do it for them.

God does occasionally make an Althouse mind as an exception that proves this rule.


Just compare Bill's mind with Hillary's mind. She has to have him and she knows it.

When we were young , we used to say that doing 5 tasks at once went smooth, but add #6 and it all fell apart. I remember that when I see the tactic of overwhelming message volume being used on folks these digital days.

Bruce Hayden said...

I have concluded, however, that there are many people who literally can't multitask. They have one stream of conscious, but that doesn't make them indicative of everyone either.

Interesting that you mention listening to the radio while doing something. My partner discovered that I can drive and talk to her, or drive and listen to her music, but not both. That third ball in the air is just too much. I am fine listening to my music while driving and talking to her though. Maybe because it is mostly classic rock that I have heard many times before, and don't have to concentrate on it. She sometimes gains enjoyment with subtly pushing me beyond my capabilities to multitask.

Kirk Parker said...

So... jimbino tries to somehow speak simultaneously in Greek and Latin, while the rest of us are conversing in English.

Figures.

Kirk Parker said...

n.n.,

"The reason to distinguish between multithreading and multitasking..."

OH. GOOD. GRIEF.

When applied to humans, it's all metaphorical anyway, so whatever distinction you make between the two (which has to do with process isolation on standard-model CPU) when applied to human activity is both fine and, ultimately, meaningless.