Are pretty faces a distraction or motivation to improve your memory? According to a new study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, it's the latter — attractive people ignite a motivational impulse that makes others work harder to impress them.

"Although intuition might suggest that exposure to highly attractive people would be distracting and would impair cognitive performance," said the study’s lead researcher Michael Baker, a psychologist at East Carolina University, in a press release, "mating goals might lead people to display desirable mental traits." To test the theory, Baker and a team of researchers from East Carolina University conducted two experiments: First, they recruited 58 heterosexual college students and assigned half of them to view the opposite sex's face for seven seconds straight. Half of the participants were randomly designated to look at highly-attractive faces, while the others had to stare at average-looking faces.

During the viewing stage of the study, participants listened to a story about an ordinary day of two people who carried out a series of errands and social interactions. Afterward, participants were asked six questions designed to test their ability to recall specific elements from the story. Participants who stared at attractive faces while they listened to the story could remember more details compared to those who stared at average-looking faces.

However, men were much more affected by a woman's facial attraction than women were. Men who viewed an attractive woman's face during the story were significantly more likely to remember details compared to the women, who performed comparatively well despite what face was placed in front of them during the storytelling.

In the second portion of the study, researchers turned to a larger population of 123 students. They repeated the same story with the same set of attractive and average-looking faces, except they switched up the sequence. One-third of the group started off by viewing attractive faces, heard the story before viewing average-looking faces and taking a memory test. Another third of the group viewed average-looking faces, heard the story, viewed attractive faces, and finally took the memory test. The last group only viewed average-looking faces before and after they heard the story.

This time, both men and women reacted to an attractive face nearly the same way because the attractive person’s face was shown again before participants took a memory test. Researchers believe attractive faces trigger a short-term mating goal in an individual interested in sharper mental ability to impress the potential mate. Meanwhile, they found average-looking people didn't inspire enough motivation for an individual to work harder to impress. This evolutionary mental effort may be stronger in men because they work harder to impress a potential mate, whereas women might not want to expend more energy than necessary to find a mate because of low competition.

"Memory is a foundational cognitive process that is linked to important survival skills," the study’s authors wrote. "An evolutionary approach to social cognition implies that proximate mating motives may lead people to display desirable mental traits. In signaling such traits, one can increase the likelihood of attracting a potential mate and signal a variety of reproductively beneficial characteristics."

Source: Naber JK, Baker MD, Sloan HN, Hall AD, and Leo J. Mating and Memory: Can Mating Cues Enhance Cognitive Performance? Evolutionary Psychology. 2016.