GMs use twice the brain, but should avert their eyes from attractive women

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GMs use twice the brain, but should avert their eyes from attractive womenIt seems grandmasters use both sides of their brain to process chess tasks, while novices use just one. This is the result of research by the University of Tübinge in Germany. In the same, scientific news category, a study by Swedish researchers suggests that male chess players choose significantly riskier strategies when playing against an attractive female opponent, even though this does not improve their performance.

There has been quite a lot of research about the differences in thinking process used by experts and novices. One of the most famous starting points of this scientific area is Adriaan de Groot's Het denken van den schaker (The Chess Player's Thinking) from 1946. Now results have been published from brain research connected to chess thinking: it seems grandmasters use both sides of their brain to process chess tasks, while novices use just one.

Merim Bilalic at the University of Tübingen in Germany used fMRI to scan the brains of eight international chess players and eight novices while they identified either geometrical shapes or whether the pieces on a chess board were in a check situation. The expert players were quicker at solving the chess problem, activating areas on both sides of their brains as they did so. The novices used just the left side.


Bilalic added that "once the usual brain structures were engaged, the experts utilised additional complementary structures in the other half, to execute processes in parallel." This parallel processing didn't occur when the expert players carried out non-chess related tasks. This suggests that parallel processing is limited to practised skills. Bilalic: "It shows that there really is no short cut to expertise."

While more experienced in using both sides of the brain, grandmaster better avert their eyes from attractive women during a chess game. A study by Swedish researchers suggests that men get distracted by and play differently against attractive women. (Credits to the New York Times Chess Blog, where we first saw this research mentioned, and from which we borrowed part of our headline of this story).

In “Beauty Queens and Battling Knights: Risk Taking and Attractiveness in Chess”, Anna Dreber, Christer Gerdes and Patrik Gränsmark explore the relationship between attractiveness and risk taking in chess.

We use a large international panel dataset on chess competitions which includes a control for the players’ skill in chess. This data is combined with results from a survey on an online labor market where participants were asked to rate the photos of 626 expert chess players according to attractiveness. Our results suggest that male chess players choose significantly riskier strategies when playing against an attractive female opponent, even though this does not improve their performance. Women’s strategies are not affected by the attractiveness of the opponent.


At the end of their research, the authors point out that the result of their study is in line with some previous results. A 2004 study showed that men become more impulsive when viewing an attractive woman compared to a less attractive woman, whereas this effect is not observed for women looking at pictures of men. A 2006 study found that for door-to-door charitable fundraising, men respond more to female solicitor attractiveness than women do. In 2010 researchers found that including an attractive woman in an ad for loans has an equally large effect on men on take up as lowering the interest rate by 25 percent, whereas women do not react to seeing an attractive man or woman.

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