Beautiful Minds

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Interacting with women makes men stupid

Can opposite sex interactions cause a decline in cognitive performance?

"Some people think having large breasts makes a woman stupid. Actually, it's quite the opposite: A woman having large breasts makes men stupid."-- Rita Rudner

I remember a time I was chatting with a woman I was very interested in. My heart was racing, I was sweating profusely, and the room was spinning uncontrollably. Suddenly a group of friends came over and asked me to introduce them to the girl I was talking to. With all eyes on me, I remember turning to look at my best friends in the entire world and realizing, much to my horror and embarrassment, that I couldn't remember any of their names!

I have discussed this phenomenon with my male and female friends (they report similar experiences). Why do I suddenly turn into a completely different person, unable to think clearly? And more importantly, why does this only happen when I talk to females? 

A hot off the press article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology may finally shed some light on these questions.

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Johan C. Karremans and colleagues at Radboud University of Nijmegen in The Netherlands tested the prediction that mixed-sex interactions temporarily cause a decline in cognitive functioning.

In two studies, they had participants interact with a stranger of either the same or opposite sex and complete a cognitive task both before and after the interaction. 

In their first study, 40 male participants tended to perform worse on a cognitive task (requiring the constant updating of working memory) following the mixed-sex interaction compared to the same-sex interaction. Interestingly, this effect held independent of whether the participants were romantically involved or single. Also, this effect was even stronger when the male participant reported higher attraction to the opposite-sex person they were interacting with.

In their second study, the researchers had 53 male and 58 female college participants interact with each other, instead of using a confederate for the interactions (like they did in the first study). Men (but not women), likewise, displayed a decline in performance on a different, very cognitively demanding task, requiring both task-switching and inhibition. Also, just like the first study, this effect held independent of whether the participant was currently in a relationship. Additionally, Men (but not women) reported higher levels of impression management in mixed-sex interactions relative to same-sex interactions.

It should be noted that there was evidence that women's cognitive performance did tend to decline after mixed-sex interactions if they reported having a relatively strong goal to impress the opposite-sex other. 

All together, these results suggest that there may indeed be something special about mixed-sex interactions that impair cognitive functioning.

But what's driving these effects? The authors suggest that these effects may be due to self-presentational concerns when interacting with someone of the opposite sex compared to the same sex. Since impression management isn't easy (it requires careful cognitive control as one is constantly monitoring and modifying one's behavior), it can be very effortful and cognitvely demanding, thus depleting an individual's cognitive resources (consistent with Roy Baumeister's self-regulatory resource model) and therefore can result in declined cognitive performance after the interaction.

As for why effect was most pronounced in men, the researchers cite research that suggests that "compared to women, men are more likely to consider mixed-sex interactions in terms of a mating game.", and therefore "men in particular might therefore be prone to engage in effortful and cognitively demanding attempts to impress an opposite-sex partner."

The researchers do offer some alternative explanations for their findings. Perhaps traditional sex roles that emphasize that men are expected to take the initiative in mixed-sex interactions cause men to exert more cognitive resources to act in accord with these expectancies. 

This is certainly a possibility, and I think it would be interesting to do more research on what women are actually thinking when they interact with members of the opposite sex compared to what men are thinking. It may turn out that traditional sex roles is the culprit. But then again, it may also turn out not to be the explanation. Indeed, research cited in their paper show that men are more likely than woman to gauge sexual interest, overestimate sexual interest, and activate mating goals when interacting with women. 

Another possible explanation is that more cognitive control may be required in opposite sex interactions because people may just have more experience in interacting with people of their same sex. Although, as the researchers note, this explanation does not explain why their effect was especially strong among the men in their sample.

Are there practical implications of these findings? The researchers think so. A perennial debate concerns the merits and disadvantages of single-sex versus coed schools. According to the researchers, it is possible that cognitive abilities may decline in mixed-sex settings, since "Part of boys' valuable cognitive resources may be spent on impressing their female class members."

The researchers also see implications for sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is usually seen as the result of men's biased perception of sexual interest of the female. Their results raise the intriguing suggestion that sexual harassment may also be partly caused by the cognitively depleted effects of a mixed-sex interaction. Indeed, cognitive depletion may cause individuals to distort reality and fail to take in all the cues necessary to accurately gauge sexual interest.

The researchers point out that future research should look at participants who may not be in the prime of their mating effort (e.g., not late adolescents), and look outside the laboratory to see if women show similar cognitive depletion effects as men in more natural environments where they might be more motivated to engage in self presentation (e.g., a bar).

Whatever the causes of the effect, the practical implications, or the future directions, these findings are certainly interesting.

Note to self: next time I chat with a desired romantic partner, don't plan on doing much afterwards that involves my brain.

© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Reference

Karremans, J.C., Verwijmeren, T. Pronk, T.M. Reitsma, M. (2009). Interacting with women can impair men's cognitive functioning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.004

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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