Menus Subscribe Search

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.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Casual Sex: Men, Women Not So Different

Casual Sex: Men, Women Not So Different
Research suggests women turn down offers of casual sex for one good reason: They suspect they won’t enjoy it.
Click the image to read the story.

[/class]

“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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


September 12 • 12:00 PM

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you’d be if the government didn’t interfere with your life, but that’s not what the research shows.


September 12 • 10:00 AM

Whispering in the Town Square: Can Twitter Provide an Escape From All Its Noise?

Twitter has created its own buzzing, digital agora, but when users want to speak amongst themselves, they tend to leave for another platform. It’s a social network that helps you find people to talk to—but barely lets you do any talking.


September 12 • 9:03 AM

How Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human History

We thought we knew how we’d been shaped by evolution. We were wrong.


September 12 • 8:02 AM

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.


September 12 • 8:00 AM

I Walked Through the Financial Crisis

Why are former Wall Street employees guiding tourists around the Financial District? Paul Hiebert signed himself up and tried to find out.


September 12 • 7:05 AM

Scams, Scams, Everywhere


Follow us


3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.