In one experiment, just telling a man he would be observed by a female was enough to hurt his psychological performance.
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.
After completing the Stroop Test, participants in Nauts’ study were asked to take part in another supposedly unrelated task. They were asked to read out loud a number of Dutch words while sitting in front of a webcam. The experimenters told them that during this “lip reading task” an observer would watch them over the webcam. The observer was given either a common male or female name. Participants were led to believe that this person would see them over the web cam, but they would not be able to interact with the person. No pictures or other identifying information were provided about the observer—all the participants knew was his or her name. After the lip reading task, the participants took another Stroop test. Women’s performance on the second test did not differ, regardless of the gender of their observer. However men who thought a woman was observing them ended up performing worse on the second Stroop test. This cognitive impairment occurred even though the men had not interacted with the female observer.
In a second study, Nauts and her colleagues again began the experiment by having each participant complete the Stroop test. Then each participant was led to believe they would soon be taking part in the same “lip reading” task similar to the first study. Half were told that a man would observe them and the other half were led to believe that a woman would observe them. In reality, participants never engaged in the task. After being told about it, they completed another Stroop test to measure their current level of cognitive functioning.
Once again, women’s performance on the test did not differ, regardless of whether they were expecting a man or woman to observe them. But men who had been told a woman would observe them ended up doing much worse on the second Stroop task. Thus, simply anticipating the opposite sex interaction was enough to interfere with men’s cognitive functioning.
In today’s society people frequently interact with each other over the phone or online, where the only way to infer somebody’s gender is through their name or voice. Nauts’ research suggests that even with these very limited interactions, men may experience cognitive impairment when faced with the opposite sex. Although the studies on their own don’t offer any concrete explanations, Nauts and her colleagues think that the reason may have something to do with men being more strongly attuned to potential mating opportunities. Since all of their participants were both heterosexual and young, they might have been thinking about whether the woman might be a potential date.
The results may also have to do with social expectations. Our society may place more pressure on men to impress women during social interactions. Although this hypothesis remains speculative, previous research has shown that the more you care about making the right impression, the more your brain gets taxed. Such interactions require us to spend a great deal of mental energy imagining how others might interpret our words and actions. For example, psychologists Jennifer Richeson and Nicole Shelton found that Caucasian Americans who hold stronger racial prejudices face similar cognitive impairments after interacting with somebody who is African American. In these situations, individuals who hold strong prejudices must try hard to come across as not prejudiced. In a different study, Richeson and her colleagues found that less privileged students at elite universities experience similar cognitive impairments after being observed by their wealthier peers.
Overall, it seems clear that whenever we face situations where we’re particularly concerned about the impression that we’re making, we may literally have difficulty thinking clearly. In the case of men, thinking about interacting with a woman is enough to make their brains go a bit fuzzy.
Daisy Grewal received her PhD in social psychology from Yale University. She is a researcher at the Stanford School of Medicine, where she investigates how stereotypes affect the careers of women and minority scientists.