Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

I Only Have Eyes For You: Ovulating Women

Mental Dysjunctions II: Ovulating women stare, but don’t remember

A woman is walking down a busy street, and passes a handsome guy, one of those Jon Hamm, Orlando Bloom, James Franco, or Leonardo DiCaprio types, pick your prototype.  Will she stare at him?  Will she remember him ten minutes later? 

The answers will depend on whether or not she is ovulating. Maybe you can guess.  But you might get it wrong.  A paper by Uriah Anderson, Elaine Perea, and several other members of our ASU social cognition labs (including MIT’s Josh Ackerman and UCLA’s Jenessa Shapiro) reports a couple of surprises in the link between women’s attention to, and memory for, handsome men. 

Women were brought into the lab and fitted with a headband that they were told measured activity in the auditory and visual areas of their brain.  In actuality, the headband contained a magnetic sensor that worked along with an eyetracking device to allow the researchers to follow exactly where each woman’s gaze went on the computer screen.  The women then viewed slides containing 8 faces, 4 of which were men, and 2 of which were highly attractive. 

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Each woman was next given a memory test. She was shown 32 faces from the slide show and 32 similar faces she had not seen.  She rated whether or not she had seen each face, on a six-point scale ranging from ‘‘Definitely did not see” to ‘‘Definitely did see.”

When the memory test was complete, each woman was asked about her menstrual cycle and asked to email researchers about the date of their next menses onset.  This allowed the researchers to later estimate whether a subject had been ovulating or not (most women are not consciously aware of whether or not they are ovulating).

The first pair of findings is what you might have guessed: Women look more at attractive people of both sexes, and ovulating women are especially likely to stare at the handsome men (as compared to the less attractive guys or women). 

Usually visual attention translates into better memory. But not for the handsome men. Although ovulating women had spent much more time looking at the good-looking men, their memory for those men did not show a parallel boost.  In a previous blog, titled Here’s looking at you, but not remembering you, I described earlier research showing a similar disjunction between attention and memory for handsome men. But we had expected that ovulating women might have been more like men (who are very good at remembering attractive members of the opposite sex). 

Why don’t women remember handsome men, even when they’re ovulating? One possibility is this: Although women may find it difficult to monitor initial visual attention to eye-catching men, perhaps there are mental mechanisms in place for suppressing additional cognitive processing, especially when those handsome men are strangers.  Women face costs as well as benefits from getting involved with unfamiliar attractive men, who carry good genes but may desert them given that they are attractive to many other women. Another possibility is that women’s initial eye contact is not designed to collect information at all, but to nonverbally signal romantic interest.  If the men don’t introduce themselves, however, no further cognitive effort is wasted on them.  This would explain the fact that ovulating women looking at, but did not especially remember, handsome men.

Reference

Anderson, U.S., Perea, E.F., Becker, D.V., Ackerman, J.M., Shapiro, J.R., Neuberg, S.L., & Kenrick, D.T. (2010). I only have eyes for you: Ovulation redirects attention (but not memory) to attractive men. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 804-808.

Related blog

Mental disjunctions: Why do women find handsome men so forgettable?

 

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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