Alternative Truths

The unexpected truths about judgment and decision making.

Pretty Women Make Simple Men

Men become simpler in the presence of a beautiful woman.

Scholars, moralists, and writers have warned men to steer clear of beautiful women since antiquity. Homer's Odysseus tied himself to his ship's mast to avoid being lured to his death by the mythic Sirens. (Their voices were beautiful, but scholars disagree about whether they were also physically appealing.) The Sirens aren't alone--they have similarly dangerous counterparts in Lilith, Delilah, Salome, and Cleopatra, all of whom seduced men to grave ends.

A spate of recent studies suggests that beautiful women can indeed provoke dangerous outcomes unintentionally, because they induce men to take risks, make mistakes, gamble more freely, and generally behave impulsively. In one study reported by Richard Ronay and Bill von Hippel, skateboarders at a skate park in Brisbane, Australia, performed riskier tricks when an attractive female stood nearby. The good news is that they performed more successful tricks than men who were not skating in the presence of a beautiful female, but the bad news is that they didn't know when to quit; they aborted fewer ill-advised tricks midway through, and failed to complete tricks successfully more often than skaters who weren't observed by an attractive female. (The authors knew the woman was attractive in part because some of the skaters asked for her phone number.)

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Perhaps skaters are risk-taking by nature, so it's not surprising that they can be coaxed to behave like extreme versions of themselves. But if skaters are risk-taking, there can be no more calculating pursuit than chess. Yet, male chess players show the same penchant for beauty-induced risk-taking. Swedish researchers Anna Dreber, Christer Gerdes, and Patrik Gransmark examined the chess moves of 626 male chess experts. Using both real games, and online surveys, the researchers found that the male chess experts made significantly riskier moves when their opponent was a beautiful woman. This result is particularly striking, because it shows that chess experts--arch rationalists if they exist at all--are prone to the same biological weakness as the rest of the male population.

 

Although they differ along many dimensions, male skateboarders and chess players are united by their biological maleness. Males are biologically driven to impress attractive women, and they're also at the mercy of testosterone, the same hormone that prompts aggression and other forms of impulsivity. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that attractive women promote risky behavior among men because they activate short-sighted biological urges. Evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have discussed the tendency for men to behave impulsively when they initially rated the attractiveness of a dozen attractive females (but not when they similar rated a dozen less unattractive females).

The men made a series of choices between small monetary amounts that they could hypothetically take home today, and larger amounts that they could only take home at some point in the future. For example, a man who would rather have $20 today than $50 in a month is more impulsive than a man who is willing to wait a month for the larger reward. Similarly, in their study, Ronay and von Hippel showed that the skateboarders experienced elevated testosterone levels when performing in the presence of an attractive female, and this rise in testosterone also predicted their willingness to take risks. Finally, research by Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein showed that men who were sexually aroused tended to make riskier decisions and reported being more likely to engage in morally questionable behavior to seek sexual gratification. Together these findings suggest that the presence of attractive women, which elevates testosterone and arousal levels, in turn encourages risky and myopic behavior.

So, do attractive women have the same effect on all men, or are some more susceptible than others? According to marketing researchers Bram van den Bergh, Siegfried Dewitte, and Luk Warlop, some men are especially sensitive to rewards, and they're consequently more likely to be swayed by the presence of attractive females than their reward-insensitive counterparts. In contrast, people who have eaten recently are much less sensitive to the presence of the attractive female. Together, these findings suggest that people have a general psychological system that response to rewards--for some people, that system is very sensitive, and it can be activated by the presence of an attractive female. For others who have relatively insensitive reward systems, attractive women are less likely to inspire impulsive behavior.

The prescription for beauty-induced myopia isn't obvious. It's all very well for skaters to forswear risky behavior when performing in front of a beautiful onlooker, but humans struggle to put promises like these into practice. It's one thing to condemn risky behavior through the dispassionate lens of imagination, and another altogether when your adrenaline's pumping amidst the heat of battle. It's also difficult to recognize when you're under the spell, since risky chess moves aren't preceded by flashing lights and wailing alarms. Perhaps Odysseus had the right idea: the only surefire cure is removing the wheels from your skateboard or making sure your chess opponent is sitting at a faraway computer.

References

Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98.

Dreber, A., Gerdes, C., & Gransmark, P. (2010). Beauty queens and battling knights: Risk taking and attractiveness in chess. Working paper, available online at http://ftp.iza.org/dp5314.pdf.

Ronay, R., & von Hippel, W. (2010). The presence of an attractive woman elevates testosterone and physical risk taking in young men. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 57-64.

Van den Bergh, B., Dewitte, S., & Warlop, L. (2008). Bikinis instigate generalized impatience in intertemporal choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 85-97.

Wilson M., & Daly, M. (2004). Do pretty women inspire men to discount the future? Biology Letters, 177-179.

Adam Alter is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University Stern School of Business.

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