Just Thinking About a Woman Can Make Men Temporarily Stupid

by Michael Grisafe on September 28, 2012

Clueless Man

Image courtesy of graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A blind date can be a frightening thing for a man: your pulse increases, your palms sweat, and your mind becomes a jumbled mess of “what-do-I-say?” and “what-does-she-look-like?” You generally become a ball of controlled confusion. In short, you’re temporarily stupid.

Researchers in the The Netherlands confirm this in a recently published experiment which suggests that just thinking about meeting a woman for the first time can interfere with male cognitive processes.1

In probably one of the best, most descriptive, scientific article titles ever written (second only to “The ‘Booty Call’: A Compromise Between Men’s and Women’s Ideal Mating Strategies2,3), the study, published as “The Mere Anticipation of an Interaction with a Woman Can Impair Men’s Cognitive Performance,” details two experiments demonstrating a link between impairment in male thought and an anticipated female encounter.

In what might seem obvious to male and females alike, researchers previously demonstrated that males show a marked decrease in their cognitive ability when interacting with an attractive female in-person for the first time (don’t you wish you worked in behavioral research?).4 Behavioral scientists have explained this drop in cognitive ability in terms of males devoting more mental resources to monitoring their appearance to increase their chances with a potential mate.5 Disney has explained this drop in cognitive ability in terms of woodland creature mating strategies (see “Twitterpated,” i.e. Bambi, et al.).

Although face-to-face interactions were the rule for an initial contact in the past, the rise of cell phones and chatting interfaces online mean that many people experience their first interactions with others though texting or instant messages.6

Because of this, researchers in this study were interested in discovering if males still demonstrate a disruption in their cognitive functioning when they are interacting in a text-based format with a woman and have absolutely no information of what she looks like.

Twitterpated Boy

A helplessly twitterpated boy tries to remember how to hold his pencil.
Photo Source: Microsoft Clip Art

For the first experiment, college students were given a cognitive test and then told to do a task. During this task, the students followed instructions which were instant messaged to them on a computer screen from what they were told was a male or female observer. In actuality, there was no observer, and the computer was sending them pre-programmed instructions. After the task, the students had their cognitive ability measured again.

Although female students showed no significant change in their cognitive ability regardless of the sex of the imaginary observer, male students demonstrated a significant drop-off of cognitive functioning when they believed they were interacting with a female.

If you extend this a bit into the real world, these results indicate that males are wired to devote a decent part of their mental resources to impressing a mate- even when they know absolutely nothing about her. The researchers explain this in terms of “error management theory,”7 in which male behavior has evolved to minimize the risk of missing mating opportunities, even when this might cost them time and effort in pursuing uninterested women.8 In betting terms, males are willing to gamble on a potential payoff (impressing a desirable mate) rather than taking a sure loss (going home “virtually” alone).

Taking all of this one step further, the researchers designed an experiment to see if just the thought of interacting with an unknown woman in the near future would impair male cognitive ability.

Following the same outline as the experiment described, college students were given a cognitive test and then told that they would be working shortly with a female or male researcher on a task. However, before this task occurred, the students were given another cognitive test to see if the anticipation of interacting with this individual would change their mental functioning.

So were the males able to hold it together this time?

Not really.

While females were once again unaffected by the perceived sex of the person they would be working with, males showed a significant plummet in their cognitive ability when they thought they would be working with a female. In short, the experiment indicates that just anticipating an interaction with a female for the first time can diminish a male’s cognitive ability.


Image courtesy of nattavut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So why the brain drain? One possible cause discussed by the researchers is that males may mentally rehearse their interaction strategies with a potential mate ahead of time, leaving them with fewer mental resources for other tasks later.9 Another possibility is that the males in this experiment might have felt anxious of the anticipated encounter and subconsciously chosen to save up their mental resources for their meeting at the cost of the cognitive test10 (kind of like choosing to flirt with the girl next to you in the library at the cost of studying for your exam tomorrow).

As an interesting side note, the experiment did not test homosexual males, so there is no data on how their cognitive functioning would operate in such situation. In addition, males were not informed whether the female they were interacting with was single or in a partnership. If males are devoting their mental resources with the goal of a potential mate, knowing the female is unavailable might decrease the cognitive resources devoted to impressing her (of course, this might be less of a deterrent for some men…).

In any case, if you’re a female on a blind date and the guy seems a bit dull and nervous, cut him some slack. It’s really not his fault. You’re just making him temporarily stupid.

Photo Source: Microsoft Clip Art

1Nauts, S., Metzmacher, M., Verwijmeren, T., Rommeswinkel, V., & Karremans, J.C. (2011). The mere anticipation of an interaction with a woman can impair men’s cognitive performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1051-1056.
2Peter K. Jonason, Norman P. Li & Margaret J. Cason (2009): The “Booty Call”: A Compromise Between Men’s and Women’s Ideal Mating Strategies, Journal of Sex Research, 46:5, 460-470.
3For a listing of other fabulous scientific article titles, check out Wired Magazine’s Article: “The 10 most absurd published scientific papers.”
4Karremans, J.C., Verwijmeren, T., Pronk, T.M., & Reitsma, M. (2009). Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1041-1044.
6Hu, Y., Wood, J.F., Smith, V., & Westbrook, N. (2004). Friendship through IM: Examining the relationship between instant messaging and intimacy. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10, 38-48.
7Haselton, M.G. (2003). The sexual overperception bias: Evidence of a systematic bias in men from a survey of naturally occurring events. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 34-47.
8Haselton, M.G., & Buss, D.M. (2000). Error management theory: A new perspective on biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 81-91.
9Finkel, E.J., Cambell, W.K., Brunell, A. B., Dalton, A.N., Starbeck, S.J., & Chartrand, T.L. (2006). High-maintenance interaction: Inefficient social coordination impairs self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 456-475.
10Nauts, S., Metzmacher, M., Verwijmeren, T., Rommeswinkel, V., & Karremans, J.C. (2011). The mere anticipation of an interaction with a woman can impair men’s cognitive performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1055.