Hi There, Uh . . . Duh

‘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 in whom I was very interested. 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, who 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 press article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology may finally shed some light on these questions.

Johan C. Karremans and colleagues at Radboud University 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 following the interaction with a woman 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 woman.

In other words, talking to women made men stupid.

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 as in the first study. The men likewise displayed a decline in performance on a different, very cognitively demanding task, requiring both task-switching and inhibition—but not the women. Also, just as in 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.

Altogether, 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 it may be due to self-presentational concerns when interacting with someone of the opposite sex compared to the same sex. 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.” Indeed, research cited in their paper shows that men are more likely than women to gauge sexual interest, overestimate that sexual interest and activate mating goals when interacting with women.

The researchers do offer some alternative explanations for their findings: traditional sex roles emphasizing a man’s role to take the initiative in mixed-sex interactions, for example, could cause men to exert more resources to act in accord with these expectancies. Another possible explanation is that more cognitive control may be required based on limited experience in interacting with people of the opposite sex.

Are there practical implications of these findings? The researchers think so. A perennial debate concerns the merits and disadvantages of single-sex vs. 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, which 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.

Whatever the causes of the effect, the practical implications or the future directions, add this note to self: next time you chat with a desired romantic partner, don’t plan on doing much afterwards that involves your brain.