Most of us have experienced a gut-cringing moment in which we made an embarrassing comment or did something idiotic in front of a person we were trying to impress. Even smart guys are not immune to this; look at how The Big Bang Theory’s Leonard Hofstadter’s staggering IQ of 170+ plummets whenever he sees Penny. Unfortunately, guys, it looks like this cognitive decline in the presence of the opposite sex affects only those in the male population.1
In a series of studies, participants were asked to complete some memory and attention tests, followed by a short chat with a male or female stranger (who was in fact a confederate – i.e., working for and with the researches), and lastly undertook the memory and attention tests again. Men’s (but not women’s) scores on the tests dropped significantly after they interacted with someone of the opposite sex.
Interestingly, this cognitive impairment can occur even when the woman is not physically present. Consider the results from an additional study in which participants had to do an attention test and then a reading task. Researchers told half of the participants that a woman would watch them in the 2nd task only (i.e., the reading exercise) via a webcam while the other half were told a man would be watching them.2 Guy’s performance on the 1st test (i.e., the attention test) actually declined when they expected to be watched by a woman in the 2nd task. This “dumbing effect” was only seen in the group of men that expected a female observer. In other words, men’s cognitive ability can drop at the mere anticipation of a woman.
These findings suggest that interacting or anticipating interactions with women can impair men’s mental functioning. Men’s evolutionary eagerness to obtain mating partners may be to blame for this effect. The researchers explained that, to maximize mating opportunities, men recruit more thinking power to try to impress, or envision how to impress women. As a result, they are left with less mental resources for other thinking tasks. Sadly, monogamy does not mitigate this evolutionary need for mating. That’s right. Both single and romantically-involved men experience cognitive impairment in the presence of women. And the more attractive the woman is, the dumber the man becomes!1 The good news is that researchers believe the cognitive decline is temporary.
So guys, the next time you fumble when you see the girl of your dreams, your brain is probably working in overdrive to think of ways to bedazzle her. It’s really not your fault if you say something stupid. Ladies, if the stupidity of the men around you puzzles you, be honored knowing that they are really only trying to impress you.
1Karremans, J., Verwijmeren, T., Pronk, T., & Reitsma, M. (2009). Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 1041-1044.
2Nauts, S., Metzmacher, M., Verwijmeren, T., Rommeswinkel, V., & Karremans J. C. (in press). The mere anticipation of an interaction with a woman can impair men’s cognitive performance. Archives of Sexual Behaviour. doi:10.1007/s10508-011-9860-z.
Sonia Ip – Graduate Student, Clinical Psychology, The Australian National University
Sonia is a Registered Psychologist in Australia and is currently a doctoral student. Her thesis examines the role of alcohol in the early stages of romantic relationships, as well as the characteristics of intimate relationships among individuals with alcohol use disorders.