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.

Computing

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.
5Ibid.
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.

Sam September 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm

So true. Can’t even count the number of times my mind has wandered when I found out I would be coming into contact with members of the opposite sex without knowing even the slightest bit of information about them, weather it be work, school, carpools, ect.

Michael Grisafe September 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Hey Sammy!

Thanks for stopping by. I think I am going to focus my posts on dating, sexuality, gender relations, and sexual health, so if you have any ideas or topics you want to see covered, let me know.

Ginny Kendall September 28, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Wow! Who knew they couldn’t help it?

Michael Grisafe September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Just remember, it’s only that first meeting. After that we get over it. Sort of. Maybe…
I don’t think I’m articulating myself very well, but maybe that’s because I’m meeting you for the first time. lol

Rebecca Martin September 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm

This explains some of the stupid things guys have said to me. Like my dad always says, “Boys are after one thing!” :-p

Michael Grisafe September 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Intelligent conversation and a creative exchange of ideas? ;-)

number1monkeyfan September 28, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I love that as a woman I have this power!

great topic, great article, great writer!

Michael Grisafe September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Just don’t abuse it!

Thanks for the complements. On a side note, you have the best screen name ever.

11DeadlySins September 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm

You have my attention. As an old married lady of 40 plus years, I still have questions about the male psyche.
Would this male focusing deficit apply to other situations? Can you recommend a website or a theorist who covers this area?
For example, when my husband is doing any activity that requires his concentration, I know not to interrupt him, because he gets annoyed with the interruption. It’s as if my question or comment is drawing his focus away from the activity.
However, conversely, he thinks nothing of interrupting me with a question when I am in the middle of an activity.
Thanks.

Michael Grisafe September 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Hi 11!

Out of curiosity, what are the 4 extra sins you are adding?

But getting back to the topic at hand, I am a guy and still have unlimited questions about the male psyche (and female)! This sort of cognitive overload when processing information that is immediately important to a man (or a woman), does actually happen in other situations. I would Google “Error Management Theory.” Here’s an article to get you started with some of the basics: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/haselton/webdocs/ErrorManagementTheory.pdf .

The theory was put forward by David Buss and Martie Haselton and basically says that men and women have evolved to behave in ways increase their overall chances of survival and reproduction. This inevedibly leads to problems in cognitive processing in certain situations (like guys focusing on impressing a potential mate at the cost of attending to other tasks).

There is quite a bit of difference in how individuals process thought and how well they can multitask even within male and female classifications. The study above mainly focused on initial encounters between a potential mate and didn’t apply to long term interactions (so it probably wouldn’t apply to you and your husband- of course if he is still in the “twitterpated” stage of your relationship after being married, I wouldn’t complain!).

There is quite a bit of difference in how individuals process thought and how well they can multitask even within male and female classifications. I would start with a search of gender and multitasking and go from there. Hope this helps!

11DeadlySins October 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Howdy, Michael!
Thanks for responding. Good question–guess I’ll have to come up with 4 more Deadly Sins. Will work on it. :-)
Actually, when I first came up w/ user name, it was because that website already had someone using 7 Deadly Sins.
Thanks for the pdf and for suggesting the search terms.

Rhonda September 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Interesting topic; nicely written and researched. I would recommend that you introduce the concept that this was a heterosexual-only study very early in the piece, i.e., when you introduce the study itself in the second paragraph (for example, “…for the first time can interfere with *heterosexual* male cognitive processes”).

While the findings may seem obvious (as you noted later in the piece), there are homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, and asexual men who might have different responses, and it would be interesting to control for gender vs. orientation. You note that women did not seem to demonstrate similar cognitive impairment; would the same be true of lesbian or bisexual women?

On another note, it would be interesting to note age-related differences – both the age of the male research subjects and the perceived age of the woman they expected to encounter. A 25-year-old man seems less likely to be cognitively impaired if he thinks a middle-aged woman is the contact. But a 50-year-old man might respond differently if he thinks the woman is 25… or 35 or 45 or 65.

Michael Grisafe September 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Hi Rhonda,

Looking over the article, I agree. Clarifying that it was only heterosexual men from the start would show some of the limits of the study. You pose interesting questions, which really aren’t explicitly answered in any research I could find. This study came out this last year, so I will keep my eye out to see if there are any studies coming out which address cognitive impairment in Error Management Theory, controlling for orientation and gender. If I find something, expect another follow-up article with the results.

All of the students in the study were college undergraduates with a mean age of 21. When they were initially lead into the lab, it was by a younger research assistant, so the researchers discussed this as an implicit cue to the male and female students that the researcher they would eventually be meeting was around the same age. However, this still is quite a logical jump, and I would be much more satisfied with an experiment that controlled for this and somehow explicitly told the candidates something about the age of the person they would meet. I agree that it seems likely that this impairment would be substantially decreased if the males thought the female was older. It would be interesting to see if men in their 50′s displayed the same level of cognitive impairment as younger men. My guess is that they would, because evolutionarily, they can still contribute to viable offspring (whereas female offspring viability and fertility peaks much earlier).

Thank you for the thoughtful replies!!!

Margaet September 28, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Michael,
Awesome post! I was a little surprised that this was true whether or not a man had seen the woman or not. Well written and well researched. This does tell me why, when I work with someone new, it can seem like the guy is not as smart as he usually seems in class. At least for a little while. Knowing this, will this make you think about how you act around men vs women?

Margaret

Michael Grisafe October 1, 2012 at 1:19 am

Heya Margaret,

I really appreciate how you are reading through the posts and thank you for your encouragement! Don’t be afraid to be a bit critical on my posts if you find something that needs improvement.

Doing all of this research definitely has made me think more about male and female mating strategies and how we relate. The big question is even knowing that something like this might be occurring, can a man consciously choose to redirect his cognitive resources and focus. For instance, if the men in the study knew that this effect classically took place, could they fight their evolutionary disposition toward ineffective cognitive management? I don’t know. I leave it to you to design another experiment (maybe when male students visit office hours?).

Thanks again for reading!

Evan September 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm

As a man who’s been in these situations before, I can relate and agree with the results. But I’m not sure if the word “stupid” really cuts it for everyone… I know that when in an encounter with an attractive woman other parts of my brain that perhaps aren’t used all the time suddenly become heightened and more intelligent. Things like creativity, humor, attention to detail, and more focus come to the forefront as a means to impress… so, basically a multi-tasking brain. Maybe not being able to find the right word is a result of all that extra activity…

Michael Grisafe October 1, 2012 at 1:27 am

Hey Evan,

That’s a great point. The study highlights a very narrow vision of cognitive functioning and really doesn’t address other cognitive areas which might be improved by the anticipation of a female. It might very well be that social intelligence is increased, while rational problem solving skills decrease. Depending on the goal of the male, this might actually help them (and certainly in the stone age world where our brains evolved, no one was working on the kinds of logical problems used in the study!).

I also saw your link through your WordPress name to your “Beercycling” site. We may have to talk about the public health implications of biking and drinking (lol!).

Quintus September 29, 2012 at 8:28 am

Nice post.
But as one layman wanting to find out more about this topic I find a lot of the references are behind paywalls. My interest
suddenly wanes when I have to pay $31 for some article that I then may not quite understand. I would rather invest in the female aspect if this theme.
I know it’s difficult to avoid this but references to open access papers would be better (if there are any).

Michael Grisafe October 1, 2012 at 1:34 am

Thanks Quintus!

Yeah, it is quite annoying how most of these scientific articles are accessed on a pay basis. This has always been a major gripe for me because I believe that most information should allow for open-source sharing when possible. Stay tuned though, because I am developing an article to specifically address access to fee sites and resources for scientific information.

earlene jameson October 4, 2012 at 1:20 am

Funny! Never thought it would be admitted. Scientific Research? Every ‘working’ woman knows, “grab a mans wang in one hand, get the bill fold in the other’. They have earned a living that way for eons. Women sooner or later don’t pay attention to a lot of things when a guy finally catches her eye. We all can be disconbobulated. Scientic Research? How silly.

Beyond help February 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Very interesting article which has relieved me greatly.Whenever i
interact with a woman i find very attractive i just stop functioning and panic.
Is there a cure for this as it seems uncontollable and condemns me to a life avoiding attractive women?

Michael Grisafe February 3, 2013 at 12:14 am

Money.

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