Standard memory test

By Tom Jacobs

(Photo: Maria Zaikina/Flickr)

Won any trivia contests lately? If so, you may want to thank that good-looking person sitting at the bar.

Recently published research finds young adults do better on a memory test if they have briefly gazed at an attractive member of the opposite sex. Such a glance apparently puts people in an impress-my-potential-mate mode, inspiring them to up their game.

“Although intuition might suggest that exposure to highly attractive people would be distracting and would impair cognitive performance, ” writes a research team led by East Carolina University psychologist Michael Baker, “mating goals might lead people to display desirable mental traits.”

After all, the researchers write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, “displaying a robust memory would signal a variety of reproductively beneficial characteristics, ” including “general intelligence, and ability to obtain valuable resources.”

No wonder that nerdy Jeopardy! champion came across as oddly hot.

Baker and his colleagues describe two studies that demonstrate this thesis. The first featured 58 psychology students who were randomly assigned to view 10 opposite-sex faces for seven seconds apiece. Half of the participants looked at attractive faces, while the others saw average-looking ones.

Those who viewed the good-looking faces before hearing the story remembered significantly more details than those in the other two conditions.

While viewing the faces, participants listened to a story about two people “who spend a day completing errands and engaging in social interactions.” Afterwards, they were asked six questions about specific elements of the narrative.

“Men who viewed attractive female faces while listening to the story remembered more details than men who viewed average faces, ” the researchers report. The memories of women, however, were not significantly affected by the male faces.

The second test, which featured 123 students, included the same story and set of photographs, but utilized them in a more complex way. Approximately one-third of participants began by viewing the attractive faces, after which they heard the story, viewed the less-attractive faces, and finally took the memory test.

For another third, the order of the faces was reversed, while the final third viewed average-looking faces both before and after taking the test.

The researchers found those who viewed the good-looking faces before hearing the story remembered significantly more details than those in the other two conditions. Those images “are likely to have primed a short-term mating goal, ” as they delicately put it, and this apparently increased participants’ concentration and ability to perform.

Interestingly, this was true for both male and female participants, although “the effect was relatively stronger in men than in women, ” they write. It would come as no surprise if men were more motivated to impress, but these results suggest a significant number of women also feel that urge.

The findings contrast with another line of research, which has found the cognitive performance of men declines after socializing with an attractive stranger. Those studies suggest the effort involved in making a good impression uses up mental resources, which can leave smitten guys temporarily befuddled.

In an email exchange, Baker acknowledged the reality of that dynamic. But he pointed out that a glance at a face is different, and less stressful, than an actual interaction.

In addition, he noted that those earlier studies did not test recall of facts. He considers that ability an important indicator of mental sharpness, and thus a sign that a stranger may be romantic-partner material.

From an evolutionary perspective, “[m]emory is a foundational cognitive process that is linked to important survival skills, ” he and his colleagues write. Thus an impressive display of that ability “would signal a variety of reproductively beneficial characteristics.”

So, single people, the optimum strategy at a tavern’s trivia night may be to casually notice someone attractive, but set aside any thoughts of initiating a conversation until the contest has concluded. That’ll increase your chances of winning — and of finding a receptive potential partner.

You’re welcome.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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