Daisy Grewal
Scientific American
March 13, 2012

Movies and television shows are full of scenes where a man tries unsuccessfully to interact with a pretty woman. In many cases, the potential suitor ends up acting foolishly despite his best attempts to impress. It seems like his brain isn’t working quite properly and according to new findings, it may not be.

Researchers have begun to explore the cognitive impairment that men experience before and after interacting with women. A 2009 study demonstrated that after a short interaction with an attractive woman, men experienced a decline in mental performance. A more recent study suggests that this cognitive impairment takes hold even w hen men simply anticipate interacting with a woman who they know very little about.

Sanne Nauts and her colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands ran two experiments using men and women university students as participants. They first collected a baseline measure of cognitive performance by having the students complete a Stroop test. Developed in 1935 by the psychologist John Ridley Stroop, the test is a common way of assessing our ability to process competing information. The test involves showing people a series of words describing different colors that are printed in different colored inks. For example, the word “blue” might be printed in green ink and the word “red” printed in blue ink. Participants are asked to name, as quickly as they can, the color of the ink that the words are written in. The test is cognitively demanding because our brains can’t help but process the meaning of the word along with the color of the ink. When people are mentally tired, they tend to complete the task at a slower rate.

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