Ever occasionally felt tongue-tied or awkward in the presence of the opposite sex? Science says you can't be confident all the time. Here's why.
Have you ever got into a lift with a pretty girl at work, or exchanged glances with an attractive waitress as she pours your coffee and wished you could think of something interesting or amusing to say?
Have you ever got home from a date and beaten yourself up for spending too much time fidgeting and pretending to find something interesting on your phone and not enough time being brilliant and charming?
Well, you can stop with the self-disgust. Anecdotal evidence has always suggested that, for many men, chatting with an attractive woman or indeed any woman is enough to turn our brains to mush. We may be witty and interesting with our mates, but never with our dates.
And now the tongue-tied among us can take comfort from science, too. According to a growing body of research, being around women really can turn men (temporarily) stupid. Here's all you need to know.
Intelligence tests show men are impaired by the presence of women
A couple of years ago psychologists from Radboud University in the Netherlands devised a simple experiment. They took men and women and had them interact with members of either the same or the opposite sex before taking a test that measured cognitive function.
The results were telling. Interacting with women made men do worse on the test than interacting with other men. For the women, it didn't make any difference. They achieved similar scores on the test whether they'd interacted first with a man or a woman.
And it didn't make any difference if the male participants were single or in relationships. Chatting with a member of the opposite sex slowed their cognitive abilities. To put it simply, being around women made men but not women less intelligent.
The researchers then devised a similar experiment but instead of having the groups of men and women interact with third parties, they got them to interact with each other.
The results were pretty much the same, with one difference. Now there was a further slight correlation between cognitive decline and the perceived attractiveness of the woman. In other words, talking to most women can leave us feeling a little dim. But interacting with an attractive woman makes us dimmer still.
Men perform worse in intelligence tests if they think a woman is observing them
And now the researchers have gone one stage further. In a study just published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour they discovered that men go a bit gaga over the merest hint of a female presence.
This time psychologist Sanne Nauts and her colleagues first asked both men and women to take a test that would measure cognitive performance (a Stroop test), and then told them to read out a series of words in front of a webcam. The participants were told that an observer would watch them over a link, and the observer was given either a common male or female name.
The participants knew nothing more about the observer. They weren't shown a picture or given any personal details like age. After reading out the words, they were asked to take the Stroop test again.
Second time around, female participants showed the same cognitive ability as they had before the reading exercise, but surprise surprise men who thought a woman had been watching them did measurably worse on the second Stroop test.
Then the participants were told that they were going to repeat the whole thing again, and were told that either a woman or man would be observing them. In reality, however, they simply completed two cognitive performance tests, one before being told whether a man or woman would observe them and one immediately afterwards.
Again, the men did worse on the second test, while the women performed just as they had before. Simply anticipating being watched by a woman was enough to impair men's mental prowess.
"Casually mentioning a female instead of a male name was sufficient to impair men's cognitive performance," explained Nauts. "These effects occur even if men do not get information about the woman's attractiveness."
Men talk differently around women
Interestingly, another recent study has shown that men even talk differently around women. The study, published last month in the journal PLoS ONE, found that, when women are at the most fertile stage of their menstrual cycle, men start to speak in a less conformist way.
In the study, the closer a woman was to her most fertile period, the less likely a man who was talking to her would mimic her sentence structure. In other words, men who sense the presence of a fertile female start choosing a language and speaking style markedly different from hers.
"This finding demonstrates that men may use creative or non-conforming language as a means of attracting a potential romantic partner," said professor Jacqueline Coyle, who carried out the research.
But why would "creative or non-conforming" language make a woman more likely to mate with you? Coyle suggests that men are using unconventional language and sentence structure to try to distinguish themselves in the mating process, to mark themselves out as interesting or intelligent.
Whether that's true or not, the research adds to the evidence that just being around women is enough to alter mental processes in men.
Are men more mentally sluggish around women?
So what does it all mean? Are we jelly heads around women? Do our minds turn to romantic mush just from hearing a woman's name?
In fact, researchers think there's a perfectly good reason for men to suffer a slight mental decline when they are around women, or even when they just anticipate being around women. Whether we know it or not, our unconscious minds are programmed to consider any interaction with an unknown female as a potential mating opportunity. That's not down to mental weakness it's just down to biology.
As the Dutch researchers state: "Compared to women, men are more likely to consider mixed-sex interactions in terms of a mating game... men in particular might therefore be prone to engage in effortful and cognitively demanding attempts to impress an opposite-sex partner."
To put it simply, men want to impress women (whether consciously or otherwise) and impressing women is mentally demanding. Saying the right things, being charming but not smarmy, showing your best side all of it requires the mental equivalent of keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time, and that drains our mental resources.
So it's not that women make us less intelligent, it's that men have made an evolutionary choice. As far as advancing our genes is concerned, putting a lot of mental resources into an endless mating game, even if it means an occasional temporary reduction in our cognitive powers, is a perfectly reasonable strategy to adopt.
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