Dumbstruck by the thought of her

My brow begins to sweat. Nervous twitches creep down my back and along my arms. I begin to squirm uncontrollably. My tongue, once capable of creating eloquent and loquacious conversation, now lolls sluggishly in my mouth, arousing only to produce the most embarrassing of squawks . And my brain – supposedly the most complex machine ever to appear in the universe – my brain goes completely numb. Why? Because a pretty girl has just walked by, and I am a man. (Technically.)

While men mostly grow out of this awkward pubescent way of interacting with women – able to charm and woo and flatter with varying degrees of success – it seems that the anaesthetic effect of women on the brains of men never quite goes away, even when the women in question are not even in the room.

Sanne Nauts and her colleagues from Radboud University, Nijmegen have shown that even the thought of interacting with a woman is enough to impair the cognitive abilities of men.

Nauts gathered together a group of straight men and women under the pretence that they would be involved in a lip reading experiment, monitored by a webcam. Before the experiment, they were first given a test to measure their thinking power. Then, they were told that a researcher would turn the webcam on remotely, and send them an instant message telling them to start. Half the group were told that this observer was called Dan, the other half Danielle.
The whole lip reading experiment was all a diversion. In reality, the researchers were creating in the minds of the participants the expectation that they were going to be interacting with another person – either a man or a woman. What the researches were interested in was how the thought of interacting with another person might affect people’s performance on the thinking power test.
The test they performed was a Stroop colour test. Names of colours were given to the participants. But, each word was also written out in a different colour. The people were challenged to read out the colour of the text, while ignoring the meaning of the word. Sounds easy, but you can see how hard it really is with this online test:

What the researchers found was that male participants performed much worse on the Stroop test when they were told they were going to be interacting with a woman than with a man. The women tested in the experiment – ever level headed – showed no such change.

Why should men be doing this? The old cliché that men think of sex every seven seconds or so is not too far from the truth. Instead of thinking of sex directly, the researchers believe that men are constantly thinking about how well their actions might be coming across to the opposite sex. A lot of thought needs to go in to creating a persona that is attractive. Am I being witty enough? Am I matching her body language? Am I even listening to her? All these subconscious thoughts – sexual media relations – take a lot of brain power. So, when half the men in the experiment were told they might be interacting with a woman (Danielle) soon, their minds wondered. They performed poorly on the Stroop test because they were saving their brain power for the upcoming female interaction. Men told they would be talking to another man were less distracted – they had no one to impress. Similarly, the woman tested in the experiment did not seem to be fazed by the thought of an outside observer.

Considering that men can be struck dumb by even the thought of a future female encounter, it’s surprising that men are able to function in modern society – with actual interactions with women – even slightly.

ResearchBlogging.orgNauts, 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