09/13/2011 08:24 am ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011

The Surprising Connection Between Dating and Math

Despite the best efforts of today's educators, women are still woefully underrepresented in the math, technology and science fields (and while we're at it, women are underrepresented at the highest levels in business and government, too). A recent review argues that the problem is no longer simply a lack of opportunity or encouragement -- in a nutshell, girls just seem to prefer other subjects. The question is, why?

It's true that women are still, to some extent, stereotyped as being less capable in these fields, and certainly this (baseless and false) belief plays a role. But new research suggests that girls may prefer to study language, arts and humanities over math and science for another reason: They believe, often on an unconscious level, that demonstrating ability in these stereotypically-male areas makes them less attractive to men.

Most of us, especially in adolescence, want very much to be romantically desirable. Girls in particular are socialized to see this as an important goal, and both sexes attempt to achieve the goal by conforming to cultural norms of what women and men are "supposed" to be like. Women are expected to be communal and nurturing, and to pursue careers that allow them to express those qualities -- like teaching, counseling and, of course, nursing. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be dominant, independent and analytical -- qualities well-suited to business, finance and science.

Unfortunately, it's not enough to know that women and men can be equally competent in any field. Stereotypes exert much of their influence on an unconscious level, as these new studies illustrate. When pursuing romantic goals, we automatically (below awareness) inhibit conflicting goals that might interfere. For women, that appears to mean choosing love over math.

In one study, male and female undergraduates saw images related to either romance (romantic restaurants, beach sunsets, lit candles) or intelligence (eyeglasses, libraries, books) in order to get the students thinking about their romantic or achievement-related goals. Later, they rated their interest in math, technology, science and engineering. The researchers found that among men, interest in these subjects was not influenced by the images they had seen. But among women, those who viewed romantic images expressed far less interest in math and science. (Interestingly, women who viewed intelligence images expressed the same level of interest as the men!)

A second study activated goals a different way -- for example, by having participants "accidentally" overhear conversations between other undergrads, about either about a recent date or a recent test -- and observed the same results. When women had romance on their minds, they liked math a lot less.

In a third study, female undergrads filled out a daily diary over three weeks, reporting on the goals they pursued each day and the activities they engaged in. The researchers found that on days when women pursued romantic goals -- like being romantically desirable, focusing on a current relationship or trying to start a new relationship -- they engaged in significantly fewer math-related activities, like attending class, studying or doing homework. On days when they pursued academic goals, the opposite was true. So women don't just like math less when they are focused on love -- they also do less math, which over time undermines their mathematical ability and confidence, inadvertently reinforcing the stereotype that caused all the trouble in the first place.

Of course, this research has interesting implications for men as well. In pursuit of romantic love, men may feel discouraged from pursuits that are stereotypically "female" -- those that involve being nurturing and communal. In other words, love doesn't just make girls bad at math -- it may also make boys act like selfish jerks, all in the service of conforming to a (largely unconscious) romantic ideal.

It's a little troubling to think about how our past choices may have been influenced in unexpected ways by our desire to loved. (As a former chemistry major who ultimately turned to psychology, this research has certainly given me a lot to chew on.) But more importantly, I think, it gives us insight as parents and teachers into the kinds of messages our children need to hear. It's not just that men and women can succeed in jobs that aren't "traditionally" associated with their sex -- kids today already know that. What they need to understand is that breaking out of a stereotype won't keep them from finding the loving relationship they also desire. Only then will they feel free to go wherever their interests and aptitudes may take them.

For more on success, relationships and happiness, check out my book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals." Follow me on Twitter: @hghalvorson.