Whether it be in a romantic comedy or a soda pop commercial, men are often portrayed as bumbling fools whenever a woman is introduced. Obviously, these portrayals of men are far from accurate, but is there some glimmer of truth in these over-the-top characterizations a man’s capacity to concentrate in the presence of a woman?
Raj, a character from the popular sitcom The big bang theory, is well-known for his inability to talk in the presence of women.
A study from Radboud University researchers in the Netherlands, recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, argue that there is some truth to this cliché and that it goes far beyond the actual presence of a woman. According to them, all you need to trigger this effect is the mention of the future presence of a woman.
In this study, aptly named “The Mere Anticipation of an Interaction with a Woman Can Impair Men’s Cognitive Performance”, the researchers, headed by Sanne Nauts, looked at the effect of being observed by a member of the opposite sex or mentioning an impending interaction with a member of the opposite sex in heterosexual men and women.
In order to test this, the participants, all university students, were asked to take a stroop test, where the subject must say the name of the colour a word is written in, ignoring the word itself, as fast a possible. Here’s an example:
In the first experiment, the subjects were escorted to a computer by a member of their own sex and were then asked to take the test. Upon completion, they were asked to take another version of the same test only this time they were made to believe that either a member of the opposite sex or a member of the same sex was observing them. The men performed far worse when they thought they were being observed by a woman than when they thought they were being observed by a man, while the women’s scores stayed the same regardless of the observer’s sex.
In the second experiment the subjects were warned about an impending interaction with a member of the opposite sex before undergoing a cognitive performance test. The anticipated interaction did not affect the women, but the men’s performance was severely affected.
The team of scientists believe that the men’s poor performance is the cost of wanting to make a good impression during the future interaction. This might be a result of “impression management”, where, in this case, men are preoccupied by the idea of trying to influence the perceptions others may have of them during future interactions. The effect is thought to be at its strongest when a man is given precious little information about the woman he is about to meet (Single? Bright? Attractive? Age Appropriate?) or when the interaction will provide very little opportunity to impress her, such as during a phone call or through instant messaging.
Why should men be more affected than woman by an anticipated interaction with a member of the opposite sex?
Scientists believe that evolutionary pressures caused men, who invest very little in gamete production and have thus very little to lose in terms of reproduction, to evolve strategies ensuring that no mating opportunity is lost, even though this may mean investing a lot of energy in an unsuitable potential mate. The loss of cognitive abilities in anticipation of having to put forth a lot of energy toward impressing a woman would have been adaptive because, presumably, a man with this “ability” would have secured more mates, and therefore more copulations, than a man who remained focused on the task at hand.
I wonder if this contributes to the dismal grades most movies score on the Bechdel test, a test meant to evaluate a movie’s depiction of women. Could it be that the mere thought of writing a decent part for a woman in a movie makes male screenwriters shy away? Food for thought.
Nauts, S., Metzmacher, M., Verwijmeren, T., Rommeswinkel, V., & Karremans, J. (2011). The Mere Anticipation of an Interaction with a Woman Can Impair Men’s Cognitive Performance Archives of Sexual Behavior DOI: 10.1007/s10508-011-9860-z