Are men hard-wired by evolution, at the sight of a lady, to try to impress her, hoping to get laid? Self-styled “pick-up artists” would certainly like to think so, and evolutionary psychologists are eager to tell them science says it, too. In his Wall Street Journal piece, “The Cheerleader Effect: What Men Do To Impress,” Robert Sapolsky rounds up the various studies run by evolutionary psychologists that purport to prove that men are incapable of not showing off when a woman is around, including on the football field, which is where those cheerleaders come in. The problem (besides the one Katy Waldman points out, which is how women are treated more like variables than humans in these kinds of studies) is that while it is true that a female presence does change male behavior, none of the mentioned studies actually prove that women cause men to show off.
“Sex-related cues like these have been found to make men more prone to take risks while playing blackjack, to discount the future when making economic decisions and to spend on conspicuous luxury items (but not on mundane expenses),” writes Sapolsky. Evolutionary psychologists immediately leap to an elaborate argument regarding status-seeking men and gold-digging women, but there may be a more mundane explanation, which is that people who are distracted have lower inhibitions generally. After all, another study found that you don’t need to make people think about sex in order to get them to make more impulsive choices. Psychologists at Stanford found that all you need to do is make people think of a number. In a study where two groups of students were asked to memorize two digit and seven digit numbers, researchers found the latter group had lowered inhibitions and were more likely to choose junk food over healthy food when offered a snack. No “mating strategies” or status-seeking involved.
Sapolsky notes that both aggressive behaviors and willingness to give to charity increase in men in the presence of women. No doubt the data is accurate, but again, it doesn’t follow that it’s necessarily hard-wired, or that it’s necessarily about showing off. Turns out that inducing lowered inhibitions in sex-free studies has the same effect on people. Harvard researchers found that when playing a game where participants had to decide whether to keep their money or share it, the less time they had to make their decision, the more likely they were to give the money away. (Could the presence of a clock in football be more to blame for aggressive, risky play on the field than the cheerleaders?) Lowered inhibitions can also explain some of the more aggressive opinions men have in the presence of women, such as willingness to go to war, another behavior Sapolsky chalks up to ladies in the room. Research found that by reducing what is called a “cognitive load”—how much your brain can process at once—by giving people alcohol, you get the same effect. People’s opinions became more simplistic and reactionary. A man who is thinking about a woman instead of giving his full brain over to a question about diplomacy vs. war is likely to reach for the pat simplicity of war. That’s not necessarily because of the woman. An adorable cat might have the same effect. (Unfortunately, the researchers only compared men and women’s reactions to the opposite sex, and didn’t think to run the tests with adorable cats or other distractions.)
Sapolsky’s article shows what is one of the fatal flaws of evolutionary psychology, which is this tendency to read too much into the results because the researchers are so eager to reinforce their beliefs that men and women are practically different species and our behavior is “hard-wired” and immoveable. Because of this, they tend to leap right to these elaborate theories of instinctual behaviors, when it may be something as simple as our inability to walk and chew gum at the same time.