In an intriguing set of empirical studies just published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, a team of social scientists led by professor Sanne Nauts shows that the mere prospect of speaking with an unknown woman reduces men's (but not women's) performance on cognitive tasks.
In the first study, 71 college students at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands were asked to complete a "lip-reading task" while supposedly being observed on a webcam by an unseen researcher who would instant message them. When the alleged researcher messaging them was named "Lisa," the men performed worse than when the purported observer messaging them had a male name.
In a second study -- this one involving 90 students -- the researchers decided to create even more distance between actual interaction with a woman to see if merely imagining that they were about to interact with a woman could affect men's cognitive performance.
As in the first study, participants were escorted to a cubicle by an experimenter of their own sex, ostensibly to collect stimulus materials for a study on lip reading.
Then the students were merely told they were being observed by a researcher named either Danielle or Daan, who would turn on the webcam and send them an instant message. That never happened. Nonetheless, the mere idea they might soon be messaging with an unknown woman whose attractiveness they could not evaluate caused in the men what the researchers call "cognitive impairment."
The authors attribute this to the cognitively costly effect of impression management, which leaves less brain energy for other tasks:
"Men seem so strongly attuned to mating opportunities that they were influenced by rather subtle cues to a woman, even in the absence of clear information about her," they note. "Casually mentioning a female instead of a male name was sufficient to impair men's cognitive performance."
It may just be that firing up the reward systems of the brain makes men less focused on the task at hand. The authors cite a 2004 study led by Bram Van den Bergh, intriguingly titled "Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice." After men were shown photos of women in lingerie or swimsuits, they became generally more impulsive -- e.g., they tended to prefer a little cash now to more cash down the road.
When women enter the room, reason flees?
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.