By Anna Buckley
Producer of Men Read Maps, Women Gossip
Do the cliches about the fortes and failings of men and women stand up to scientific scrutiny?
Who's better at map reading?
Women can't read maps. Men lack empathy. Women are born with an innate ability to multi-task while men struggle to do more than one thing at a time. And when it comes to gossip, the female of the species is more chatty than the male.
So far, so familiar - if rather obvious. But do these tired old platitudes stand up when put to the test? That's what science journalists Vivienne Parry and Quentin Cooper set out to discover when they agreed to be guinea pigs in four experiments designed to test their respective abilities for BBC Radio 4's Men Read Maps, Women Gossip.
Here are the results:
Vivienne and Quentin were given five minutes to complete as much as possible of the following tasks: fry an egg to perfection, count backwards in sevens, make a cup of tea, arrange the letters of the alphabet in order on the table and respond to incoming text messages and phone calls.
For all Vivienne's bravado that she's a born multi-tasker, she was squarely defeated by Quentin's sequential approach. She tried to do everything at once, and so got muddled while counting backwards (in her defence, she claims to be poor at mental arithmetic).
Our experiment and countless others have shown that it is better to do one task after another. Stephen Monsell, a professor of cognitive psychology at Exeter University, says this is because switching between tasks increases the overall time to get the tasks done by about a third.
The test was simple: to navigate from A to B while driving in Milton Keynes. The only variable was the driver, and it took Vivienne twice as long to reach her destination.
That's typical, says psycho-biologist Qazi Rahman, of the University of East London. "Overall, men are better map readers, and by quite a big margin." Even with practice, most women can only improve their performance slightly.
Remember which turnoff to take?
This is because men and women navigate in different ways. Men take a bird's eye view of their journey to get an overall sense of where they are going, whereas women break it down into bite-size chunks, navigating in relation to where they are at the time. This is why women turn maps around to match the direction they're facing, and use landmarks to find their way.
In our experiment, Quentin planned his route in advance, while Vivienne worked out which way to turn on each roundabout as she reached it - consulting the map from different viewpoints slowed her down.
Vivienne and Quentin each spent half an hour talking to a friend, and tapes of their conversations were analysed by Robin Dunbar, Professor of Psychology at Liverpool University.
Quentin and his friend, Steve, thought that no gossip had passed their lips; Vivienne and Sally thought that gossip accounted for 2% of the time.
But Dr Dunbar reached a different conclusion. Both Vivienne and Quentin had gossiped for 60% of the total chat time, and about much the same things. For gossip is not confined to tittle-tattle about acquaintances' personal lives.
"Gossip is talking about nothing in particular," says Dr Dunbar. "It's the human equivalent of chimpanzees grooming each other to check for fleas. Every minute you chat with someone about nothing in particular, you are saying to them: 'I like being with you, I want you in my social network'."
It's a common female gripe that men don't do empathy. But is there any scientific evidence to back this up?
To test Quentin's ability to read other people's feelings, first we put Vivienne in a moderately stressful situation. Quentin was asked to observe her while she wrote a piece for radio to an extremely tight deadline and to note down any changes in her feelings. What he said about how Vivienne felt was then compared to what Vivienne herself said she was feeling.
The same scenario was then repeated to test Vivienne's empathy, with Quentin up against it and Vivienne trying to guess when he was stressed, happy, irritated or excited.
The result? A draw, said professor of psychology, Dr Janet Reibstein. Is this typical? "Women are generally more empathic than men, but the gap is closing."
Women are socialised from an early age to identify feelings and to talk about them, whereas men are conditioned to look out for number one. But ours is a society that increasingly values the emotionally literate, and men can learn to be more empathetic, especially if they take on a caring role such as looking after children.
Dr Reibstein doubts the day will come when gender differences disappear completely, "but there will be more people in the middle."
Men Read Maps, Women Gossip is on BBC Radio 4 at 1545 BST this week until Thursday 24 May or listen online at any time.