It's a scenario that's repeated up and down the land. The man knows he is supposed to be focused on discussing last month's sales projections, or some other task, but instead finds himself preoccupied by his female colleague. Now Johan Karremans and colleagues have shown that men are left cognitively impaired by such situations, an effect that seems to be related to the diversion of cognitive resources towards the challenge of creating the best possible impression.
Forty male heterosexual undergrads performed a memory test, called the 2-back task, both before and after chatting for seven minutes with a female or male experimenter. The task required them to observe a stream of letters and indicate as fast as possible for each one whether it was the same as the letter that appeared two letters ago. Participants who conversed with a female experimenter showed a deterioration in performance. By contrast, participants who chatted with a male experimenter showed no deterioration. For the participants who chatted with a female, their impairment increased in line with how attractive they perceived the experimenter to be. Participants in a relationship were impaired by talking to a woman just as much as participants who were single.
A second experiment was similar to the first, except female students were also tested. Also, a more demanding task was used (a version of the Simon task, which involved categorising a word if it was printed in white or indicating its colour if it appeared in blue or green). Between tests, participants chatted with another participant, either male or female.
Once again, male participants showed a decline in cognitive performance after chatting for a few minutes with a female. They were slower by an average of about 40ms - a small, but statistically significant impairment. Male participants who said they were more concerned by creating a good impression were the ones who were most impaired. Female participants, by contrast, were unaffected, whether they chatted between tests to a man or woman.
That men, but not women, were affected by a brief mixed-sex encounter is consistent with research in evolutionary psychology (and with received wisdom) showing that men are more motivated by mating goals. For example, men are more likely to look for sexual interest in the behaviour of the opposite sex, and tend to overestimate women's sexual interest. More generally, the current findings tally with research in other contexts showing that impression management can deplete cognitive resources - such as when a racially prejudiced person interacts with a person of different ethnicity (pdf).
Karremans' team said their findings could have important real-life implications, for example in relation to whether schooling should be single or mixed-sex. "Part of boys' valuable cognitive resources may be spent on impressing their female class members," they said.
Karremans, J., Verwijmeren, T., Pronk, T., & Reitsma, M. (2009). Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 1041-1044 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.004