“What are you doing? What’s the matter? Be quiet, stupid!” he said to his heart. But the more he tried to be calm, the more labored grew his breath. (Tolstoy, 2003/1877
, p. 27)
In Tolstoy’s famous novel Anna Karenina, Levin walks up to a skating pond to talk to Kitty. Determined to make a good impression on the girl, his heart starts racing as he thinks of what to say to Kitty and tries to picture her. At the time he arrives at the pond, he starts stuttering and blushing and is even unable to recognize a friend that passes by.
Novels and movies frequently feature men who are trying hard to impress a woman but are completely depleted by their attempts, causing them to stumble, forget where they live, or, in Levin’s case, stutter and fail to recognize a friend. Though these examples may seem far-fetched, recent research suggests that they contain a kernel of truth: men’s cognitive performance is depleted after a short interaction with a woman, especially if the woman is attractive and men report trying to impress her (Karremans, Verwijmeren, Pronk, & Reitsma, 2009
). Interactions that require impression management are cognitively taxing because people need to exert effort to strategically control their behavior and monitor the impression they make (Vohs, Baumeister, & Ciarocco, 2005
). Thus, men’s (but not women’s) cognitive performance is impaired after an interaction with someone of the opposite sex because they are trying to make a good impression on her, and impression management is cognitively costly.
In Levin’s case, however, it is not the actual interaction with Kitty that causes him to stutter: he was already depleted by the time he reached the pond. In everyday life, there are many such situations in which men merely anticipate an interaction with a woman (anticipated interactions) or in which they do not communicate with a woman face-to-face (pseudo-interactions) but do so via phone or the internet. In fact, these types of “pseudo-interactions” have become more and more frequent through the advance of the internet and mobile phones, to the point where 89% of college students use instant messaging (and have instant messaging programs turned on for an average of 10 h a day; Hu, Wood, Smith, & Westbrook, 2004
), and almost 30% of employees use instant messaging to communicate with customers or colleagues (Garret & Danziger, 2008
). Next to pseudo-interactions, there are many situations in which men expect an interaction with a woman (e.g., when waiting for a meeting with a new female coworker or before going on a blind date). Thus, from a practical point of view, an interesting question is if such pseudo-interactions and anticipated interactions with opposite-sex others lead to the cognitive impairment effect that has been found previously in studies in which males actually interacted with an opposite-sex other.
One important difference between actual interactions and pseudo- or anticipated interactions is that in anticipated interactions or pseudo-interactions, men frequently know little to nothing about the woman they are (going to be) interacting with. Men do not usually know if the female call center employee who contacts them about their car insurance is attractive, or whether their new accountant, with whom they have an appointment later that day, is single. It is unclear if men’s cognitive performance would decrease in such an uncertain situation, as people generally only expend cognitive resources if they find doing so is worthwhile (Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Twenge, 2005
; Wan & Sternthal, 2008
), and men do not readily engage in impression management if a woman has low mate value (Wilson & Daly, 2004
). The first goal of the present research was to examine if men’s cognitive performance decreased after a pseudo-interaction with a woman in the absence of clear information about her mate value.
There are several lines of research suggesting that men may expend their cognitive resources on an anticipated or pseudo-interaction with a woman even if they have little to no information about her mate value. Men are likely to perceive relatively neutral situations in sexualized terms: compared to women, they have a higher sex drive (Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001
), and they are so strongly attuned to sexual opportunities that they frequently overperceive women’s sexual intent (Haselton & Buss, 2000
). According to error management theory (Haselton, 2003
), evolutionary pressures shaped an adaptively biased system of judgment in men that minimizes the risk of missing mating opportunities, even though this means that men frequently invest resources in women who are not actually interested in them (Haselton & Buss, 2000
). In line with this, there is research suggesting that even subtle exposure to a woman can trigger men’s motivation to make a good impression, and could already instigate processes related to impression management (e.g., risk taking behavior; Ronay & Von Hippel, 2010
; Van den Bergh & Dewitte, 2006
; Van den Bergh, Dewitte, & Warlop, 2003
; Wilson & Daly, 2004
). Thus, men are likely to be motivated to invest precious cognitive resources even in the absence of information about their interaction partner, because she might be
an attractive mate. Therefore, we expect that men’s cognitive performance will decrease after a pseudo-interaction with a woman, even if they lack clear information about her attractiveness, age, and marital status.
The second goal of the present research was to investigate if men’s cognitive performance will decrease if they merely anticipate an interaction with a woman: a situation that does not require actual impression management. From a theoretical point of view, this question is interesting, as previous research suggests that certain types of interactions are cognitively taxing because they require people to manage their impressions and coordinate the interaction to make it run smoothly (Finkel et al., 2006
). In the study by Karremans et al. (2009
), men’s cognitive performance decreased after they had been talking to and interacting with an attractive young confederate or fellow student for five to seven minutes. In this situation, men could extensively monitor and strategically adjust their verbal and nonverbal behavior during the interaction, and they had to exert effort to make the interaction run smoothly and override habitual or dispositional responses in order to make the desired impression (Vohs et al., 2005
). This study suggests that interacting
with a woman can be cognitively taxing for men as the males are expending their cognitive resources during the interaction on making a good impression, resulting in reduced cognitive resources to perform well on a subsequent task (Karremans et al., 2009
Would an anticipated interaction lead to a similar cognitive impairment effect? If only actively making a good impression would cause the cognitive impairment effect, we should not expect this effect to occur in the case of an anticipated interaction with a woman. However, we reason that there may be processes related to impression management that can spontaneously be induced when anticipating an interaction with a woman, and these processes may also be cognitively taxing. In Tolstoy’s novel, Levin thought about Kitty, the girl he would have to talk to later on, and practiced the interaction with her while walking to the pond to meet her. It seems likely that, when anticipating an interaction with a woman, men likewise try to envision their interaction partner and estimate which kind of impression they would like to make on her. Moreover, they may also envision how
they will try to impress her. Relatedly, males may feel anxious when thinking about an upcoming interaction (as Levin did), which may negatively affect cognitive performance (cf. Richeson & Shelton, 2003
). Thus, psychological processes related to, or in the service of, impression management may hinder cognitive performance on other tasks.
In sum, although research suggests that men’s cognitive performance decreases after an interaction with an attractive woman because they try to make a good impression on her, it is unclear if having a pseudo-interaction or anticipating an interaction will yield the same effects. This question is interesting because such interactions are highly prevalent in the age of internet, mobile phones, and instant messaging and because such interactions lack some of the characteristics (i.e., often little or no information about the interaction partner; no possibility for actual impression management in case of the anticipated interaction) that have been implied in explaining previous results showing that interacting with a woman can impair men’s cognitive performance (Karremans et al., 2009
We conducted two studies to address these issues. In Study 1, we investigated if men’s cognitive performance would decrease after a pseudo-interaction in which men lacked clear information about the woman’s mate value. In this study, men were told that they were being observed by a female experimenter while doing a task. In Study 2, we investigated if the cognitive impairment would occur for males in a situation in which they could not actually engage in impression management. In this study, men merely anticipated having a pseudo-interaction with a woman later on. The situation we created in both experiments was fairly neutral1
: participants were told that they participated in an experiment about language, and their supposed interaction partner was an experimenter who would send them a message to let them know that they could start the task. We expected that men’s, but not women’s, cognitive performance would decrease after they had a pseudo-interaction with, or anticipated an interaction with, someone from the opposite sex.