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What turns a man's mind to mush? A female observer

What turns a man's mind to mush? A female observer

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Just tell a guy a woman's going to watch, and his cognitive functioning begins to decline, according to a new study.

People tend to think of specific individuals as having performance anxiety, but it may actually be a whole gender.

A new study show that men's cognitive performance declines if they will be told a woman will watch them. And that's it. The woman doesn't actually have to watch them and they don't even need to see her for their cognitive functioning to suffer.

Dutch researchers led by Sanne Nauts of the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands conducted two studies to follow up on a 2009 study that showed that heterosexual men showed decines in cognitive performance after interacting with the opposite sex. However, women showed no such decline.

The experiments

In the latest study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the researchers ran two experiments on heterosexual university students.

They began by establishing the subjects' baseline cognitive performance with a Stroop test, in which a participant sees, for instance, the word "blue" in green ink, or the word "red" in blue ink, and they have to quickly identify the color of the ink used in each word. The meaning of the word interferes with the brain's attempt to name the color of the ink, and when people are mentally tired, they'll do this more slowly.

They then asked the subjects to sit in front of a web cam and read some Dutch words aloud. The subjects were also told that during this "lip reading" task, an observer, who had a common female or male name, would watch them via the web cam. However, they were told that they would not interact with this person, and they knew nothing else about the observer other than his or her name.

Afterward, the subjects took another Stroop test. Women performed just as well as they did the first time, no matter the gender of their observer. But men who thought a woman had observed them lip reading performed worse on the Stroop test.

In a second study, Nauts and her team again had each participant take a Stroop test. Then, they were told they would be taking part in a the same lip reading task as in the first study, and again, half were told that a man would observe them, and the other half were told they'd have a female observer.

However, the researchers never actually had them do the lip reading task. Instead, they took another Stroop test. Again, the women's performance stayed the same, no matter which gender they anticipated would observe them during lip reading. But the men who were told their observer would be a woman performed more poorly on the second Stroop test, showing that even just anticipating being observed by the opposite sex was enough to cause a decline in their cognitive performance.

Possible causes

Nauts speculates that the reason for the effect is that men are more aware of potential mating opportunities. As Scientific American explains, "Since all of their participants were both heterosexual and young, they might have been thinking about whether the woman might be a potential date."

Another hypothesis is that men feel more pressure to impress women than vice versa. Other research has shown that the brain can be taxed by the mere desire to make a good impression, since we spend mental energy imagining how others might perceive what we say and do.

photo via: Saveoursmile/Flickr

via: Scientific American

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure