Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Men can't multitask? Again with this story?

Today I read a post by Susan Taylor at Babyology.com delightfully sharing the news that it has been proved that men can't multitask - therefore fathers can't multitask. I've looked at some of her other posts and they seem ok - it's just this one that seems... well, rude, I guess, with irresponsible reporting of scientific findings.

The claims that
a) women can multitask and
b) men can't multitask
always bother me. It feels a bit like a damning accusation and I admit it makes me feel defensive - even though I consider myself pretty poor at dividing my attention, if I'm honest. I just dispute that it's because I'm a man, that any woman who can do better is that way because of her sex, and I question whether there is any scientific basis for such a claim. If there's evidence for either claim, then I'm ok with it, and I'd like to find out. I object to the rumour of scientific evidence being used in household battles, though. Unlike Susan's post, mine is going to try and stick with a reasoned interpretation of the evidence.

Let's start with the claims she makes:

1. From the outset, this is an article about what men can't do - the heading tells us men can't look after the kids AND do housework. I struggle, I admit, but I don't think it's because I'm a man. But then, I've always been more comfortable with housework than the stereotype, so perhaps it's not really about me. Let's see.

there’s actually a scientific reason for it – men really can’t multitask. Most mothers are pros at multitasking – really because we have to be. We’re like Hindu deities with multiple arms, because running a household when you have small children requires a massive effort. And some of us even have other jobs or work to do as well!Study proves it – men suck at multitasking Turns out, men really can’t do more than one thing at a time (or at least are terrible at it compared to women)Us gals have of course pretty much known this for a while, but a recent study has actually now proven it’s a scientific fact – our brains work differently.All the other women however, were able to maintain their physical movements while working out the verbal task. They were completely unfazed – way to go chicks!

No need to take each of these statements separately. Susan seems pretty convinced about the idea that most women are better at multitasking than men, so it looks like good news for her that it's now a scientific fact that men are terrible at doing more than one thing at a time. The thing is, it's unlikely that this study has proven anything - that's not how science works. So leaping from a study to the dramatic conclusion that men 'suck' is probably not a well-reasoned, logical step to take - nor the headline claim that men can't do housework AND look after the kids. It's an emotional claim that is probably not helpful. But let's see what the study says. Perhaps it is about sex differences in household multitasking.

Apparently language function and right arm swing are thought to be controlled primarily by the brain’s left hemisphere. This new study found that the complicated brain teaser overwhelmed the left brain of all the men and older women, which then affected their arm movement – something which scientists are saying gives more evidence to the theory that men aren’t actually capable of multitasking.

Ok, so Susan says that men and older women found it more difficult to move their right arm and do a brain teaser than younger women. And some 'scientists' are saying this gives more evidence to the theory than men aren't actually capable of multitasking. There's that big jump again. I wonder who those other scientists are. Presumably not the ones from this study?

What the study says:
Right arm swing is affected by a Stroop task (requiring participants to say the colour in which a word is written, which becomes difficult when that word is blue, for example) in adults 40-59, with older adults showing even more effect, and women under 60 showing less. That effect was in terms of symmetry of arm swing: there was more of a change towards asymmetry among men than women under 60. The same pattern of results applies for females and males, but, importantly, the increase in asymmetry for females under 60 was not significant. This means the changes were bigger for males and older females. Technically it does mean that, in this study, there was no change in asymmetry, for those women under 60 and the conclusion that this represents resistance to the effect rather than complete absence of the effect is an important one.
Figure 2.
source: Killeen, T., Easthope, C. S., Filli, L., Lőrincz, L., Schrafl-Altermatt, M., Brugger, P., ... & Bolliger, M. (2017). Increasing cognitive load attenuates right arm swing in healthy human walking. Royal Society open science4(1), 160993. http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/4/1/160993.figures-only

So, in other words, everyone managed to do both tasks, swinging their arms and saying the words, but the more difficult the Stroop task was, the more likely people's arms were to swing asymmetrically. The figure above is taken directly from the study. It's not easy to follow. I'd just like to draw your attention to the incongruent part of the females graph on the top right. It shows you the frequency of errors made by different age groups of women when the task was hard. The lightest line shows how often each age group made greater than 5 errors. So that little, light-grey triangle shows that older women had the highest frequency of errors. The medium-grey and black lines shows how often some errors were made (1-5) and no errors, and there's not much difference in those for the younger age groups. That would be about 40-50% of the time, women made errors in the cognitive task. Then look at the bottom graph: it shows that men had the highest asymmetry when making 5 or more errors in the Stroop task. Women had the highest asymmetry when making some errors, higher than men, even.

But wait - Susan Taylor told us 'All the other women however, were able to maintain their physical movements while working out the verbal task. They were completely unfazed – way to go chicks!' 

Well, Susan Taylor, that exclamation seems to be an exaggeration. It's not what the researchers said, and it's not what their findings show. More disturbingly, I'm not sure these are even your own words. See the links below for numerous other versions of this story, at least one other using the word 'unfazed'...

Susan Taylor, these researchers didn't say anything about multitasking. And the conclusion they made was to do with hormones in the brain - hardly a new scientific fact that oestrogen might be responsible for some sex differences. There was optimism in their claim that oestrogen therapy might help patients with gait instability and elderly fallers. There is no optimism in your claim that the study showed that men suck at multitasking. Why would you misrepresent the work of these researchers in this way? One of the other stories about this study quotes one of the researchers when asked if the study proves that women are better multi-taskers: 

“Ha ha! I think this shows that younger women may be able to resist interference of these two fairly specific behaviours,” she said.
i.e. no, it doesn't mean that women are better multitaskers

So how did you reach that conclusion, Susan Taylor? Is it because you didn't read their work? Don't be shy - it's common in blog posts these days - after all, readers don't want truth, right? Your readers (the 'we' you use) are supposed to be women, and presumably mothers who live with men they consider incapable of doing housework (who is best served by the myth that men are biologically disinclined towards housework?). You didn't write for an academic audience and you don't expect your readers to have the gumption to follow your link and read science for themselves.

How about this question - did you do your own research? I did a google search for switzerland royal society open multitasking and guess what! Below are 10 articles saying the same thing. Tiresome.
The real culprit may be the press release, which includes the word 'multitask', lighting a fire that hasn't gone out yet.

On the basis that Susan Taylor probably read the research no less than the writers of these other posts, I suppose she shouldn't be judged too harshly. Each has crafted a story that is a mixture of the press-release and their own prejudices.

Does Susan Taylor offer more than this? Yes. Some advice.
a) Get a system going ... Get one going for him as well so all their chores become second nature.
b) Be specific – men are hopeless mind readers, they have very little intuition
c) Let it go – so what if the house is a mess when you get back from getting your hair done? 
And a 'did my writing confirm your prejudices' check...
Are you better at multitasking than your male partner?
Overall, yeah, I find this hard to digest. It's mostly a rant about men not doing chores, borrowing some badly reported scientific findings to make the rant seem scientific. It's really not. To be fair, the final advice, even if it is a bit infantilising of male partners, sounds quite good, and maybe that's what should have been written about? I mean, I appreciate it when instructions given to me are specific - whether I'm a hopeless mind reader or not.

Before I close this, I wanted to do a quick Google Scholar search for academic work on multitasking. I want to have an idea of the scientific status of the concept and a quick check for gender differences. 

Multiple sub-goal scheduling, anyone? This article doesn't mention gender.

This one from Chinese researchers is a really interesting read. They link multitasking to the Hunter-Gatherer hypothesis, noting that it's interesting that even though there's hardly any empirical support for the folk knowledge that men are not as good at multi-tasking, there exists a theoretical explanation for that folk knowledge. That's putting the cart before the horse. Actually these researchers do find a difference, and they are quite balanced, I think, in their argument for what it means. Looks like there are some frontal lobe differences to do with the coordination of planned activity. Still not well connected to men doing housework and looking after the kids yet.

But regardless of the lack of evidence, what if it is found that men's brains do not perform as well at multiple cognitively demanding activities? How would it change things for you? If you're already harassing your male partner for not doing enough housework, will this make things better or worse?

I despair at this kind of thing because I think it's a useless search for evidence of differences between men and women with the aim of pushing us apart, alienating us from each other. In the climate we have now, one that is not that progressive, one that trains males and females to perform in different ways, a finding of difference is not useful. Compare this one with work on whether girls can throw as well as boys. Our time is better spent teaching all of our children to behave responsibly, to do chores and understand why, to spend more time teaching them that they can acquire skill in whatever they would like to do, and to respect others who don't have the same skills as them. Perpetuating sex difference myths is a cause of sex differences, and doing so with 'scientific' claims that are simply misinterpretations is some of the worst trickery. It undermines human potential - I would say that even when we find differences, our aim should be to explore how to overcome them, not how to package them into insults.

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