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Sex on the Brain Proves Costly for Men

• January 16, 2012 • 12:30 PM

New research suggests the mere idea of an encounter with a woman can impair men’s cognitive performance.

Ladies: Do you have any idea how much power you have over us men? To quote the classic song, it seems the very thought of you is enough to dull our brains.

That’s the conclusion of a research team from the Netherlands, which reports the mere anticipation of interacting with a woman can temporarily impede men’s mental abilities.

In one experiment, “Casually mentioning a female instead of a male name was sufficient to impair men’s cognitive performance,” the team from the Radboud University Nijmegen Behavioral Sciences Institute writes in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. In another, a brief instant-messaging exchange was enough to do the trick.

“Moreover, these effects occur even if men do not get information about the woman’s attractiveness,” adds the researchers, led by Sanne Nauts.

The research builds on a much-discussed 2009 study by Johan Karremans (one of the authors of the new paper). It found men’s, but not women’s, cognitive performance declined following five to seven minutes of socializing with an attractive stranger. That study concluded that heterosexual males are, in such situations, “expending their cognitive resources … on making a good impression.”

Any man who has found himself at a loss for words while chatting with an attractive woman can validate that conclusion. The new study finds this mental-depletion dynamic can be triggered by the simple idea of such an encounter — even when a man has no clue regarding a woman’s attractiveness or availability.

In the first experiment, 71 students (39 women) first completed a standard Stroop task. A common measure of cognitive functioning, it requires participants to read words flashed onto a screen and rapidly differentiate between the actual color of the letters (say, red) and the color that the letters are spelling out (say, green).

Afterward, they spent several minutes reading short words out loud in front of a webcam. (This was described to them as a “lip-reading task.”) A monitor, who was identified only by a male or female name, guided them through the process by sending a series of instant messages.

Finally, participants completed a second Stroop task to measure any change in their cognitive abilities.

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Casual Sex: Men, Women Not So Different

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“Male participants performed worse on the (second) Stroop task after they were allegedly observed by a woman, as compared to when observed by a man,” the researchers report. In contrast, females’ performance was not affected by the gender of the observer.

The second study, featuring 90 students, was similarly structured, except that participants were merely told that an experimenter sitting in an adjacent cubicle would be sending them instant messages during the lip-reading task. This person was given either a male or female name. No IMs were actually sent.

The results replicated those of the first study: “Male participants performed worse on the Stroop task when they expected observation by a woman, as compared to when expecting observation by a man.” Again, no such effect was found for females.

Why the difference? The researchers offer some theories, noting that evolutionary biology suggests males are (consciously or unconsciously) always on the lookout for potential mating opportunities. Men are therefore more likely than women “to perceive relatively neutral situations in sexualized terms” — an apparently instantaneous response that takes a mental toll.

“Men’s cognitive performance might be affected if they are talking to a woman on the phone (or already before that, while they were waiting for her phone call), if they are chatting with a woman online, or if they are sitting in the waiting room of their new, female, doctor,” Nauts and her colleagues write.

The study took place in a university environment; the participants were mostly young (their mean age was 21). It’s not certain the results would be duplicated among the general population.

Then again, anyone who has watched a resident of a nursing home smile for a pretty nurse knows that men never outgrow an interest in impressing women. What we didn’t know was the cognitive consequences.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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