Kodi Arfer / Wisterwood

Sex, dogs, and hyperaccessibility

Topic List
#001 | Kodiologist | | (edited)
On Tuesday I'll begin running a study with a new theme. My motivating example is, as usual, sexuality. In particular, I was thinking about how sex, as a concept, is hyperaccessible, in the sense that people tend to be reminded of sexuality and see connections between it and whatever else they're paying attention to with especial frequency. Even if giggling about accidental sexual double entendre is commonest in middle school, seeing sex everywhere seems to be a basic characteristic of the human condition, at least for humans with sexual feelings.

Why is this so? Well, perhaps it's merely an essential quirk of human sexuality. A more interesting (and perhaps more obvious) theory is that it's just the most conspicuous instance of motivation-induced accessibility. Because, as it turns out, wanting something makes that thing more cognitively accessible. In Berry, Andrade, and May (2007), for instance, hungry subjects, compared to satiated subjects, had an advantage in a lexical-decision task (where you have to decide as quickly as possible whether a string of letters is a real word or a non-word, like "breal") for food-related words. Aarts, Dijksterhuis, and De Vries (2001) obtained something analogous for thirst. It turns out that not even a primal sort of motivation is necessary: Förster, Liberman, and Higgins (2005) got an advantage in a lexical-decision task (and a disadvantage in a Stroop task) for glasses-related words among subjects who had been asked to look out for a picture of glasses. The effect reversed as soon as subjects found what they were looking for, showing that it was the goal, rather than the mere mention of glasses, that increased accessibility.

To make a long story short, my new study is inspired by the Förster et al. paper but seeks to show that the change in accessibility can cause much more subtle changes in numerical judgment. So I decided that my cue word would be "bug", and I was looking in the University of South Florida Free Association Norms (http://w3.usf.edu/FreeAssociation) for concepts people associate with bugs. This dataset is from studies in which people were given a big list of words and were asked to write down the first other word that came to mind for each cue. The data looks like this, where "Cue" is the given word, "Target" is the response, "G" is the size of the group used for norming the cue, and "N" is the number of people who provided the target:

aardvark,pink panther,152,4
aardvark,road kill,152,2
abdomen,sit ups,152,4
abdomen,six pack,152,2
#002 | Kodiologist |
"Abdomen" made 2 of 152 people think of sex? Huh? It occurred to me that this was a nice dataset with which to test my idea of sex being hyperaccessible. I tried counting up the number of times each target appeared in the dataset:

1. food,324
2. money,302
3. water,276
4. car,259
5. good,255
6. bad,229
7. work,196
8. house,185
9. school,183
10. love,181
11. man,171
12. paper,163
13. pain,158
14. animal,156
15. people,154
16. fun,151
17. book,149
18. clothes,147
19. happy,145
20. dog,144
21. hard,144
22. cold,138
23. hurt,137
24. red,135
25. person,134
26. death,133
27. music,132
28. white,131
29. black,129
30. girl,127
31. hot,127
32. eat,126
33. green,126
34. big,120
35. up,120
36. mean,119
37. time,119
38. small,117
39. nice,115
40. friend,114
41. hair,114
42. old,112
43. sex,110
44. clean,109
45. life,107
46. tree,106
47. help,105
48. me,103
49. movie,103
50. child,101

It's nice for the idea of motivation inducing accessibility that "food", "money", and "water" are so high, but: 43rd place, well below "dog"? I tried summing N / G (a measure of association strength) instead of just counting the instances. "Sex" then comes in even lower, at 78th place.

Finally, thinking that the selection of cue words could be exerting an undue influence on these rankings, I tried looking only at the subset of the data where the cue words are in the 850-word Basic English vocabulary. This leaves 778 cue words, and "sex" ends up at 91st place for the counting method and 351st place for the N / G method. Huh.

There are many caveats here, of course, chief among them that (a) there were surely many people who would've written down "sex" but weren't comfortable with it, and (b) "love", which ranks pretty high at 10th place in the list above, is closely related. Still, I'm surprised. Even though I favor trying to explain whatever's peculiar about human sexuality in terms of more basic psychological constructs, like motivation, I still suspect sex is especially accessible, even if this accessibility arises solely from sexuality's special motivational potency.

Aarts, H., Dijksterhuis, A. & De Vries, P. (2001). On the psychology of drinking: Being thirsty and perceptually ready. British Journal of Psychology, 92, 631–642. doi:10.1348/000712601162383

Berry, L.-M., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2007). Hunger-related intrusive thoughts reflect increased accessibility of food items. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 865–878. doi:10.1080/02699930600826408

Förster, J., Liberman, N., & Higgins, E. T. (2005). Accessibility from active and fulfilled goals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 220–239. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2004.06.009

Born disabled / [Courage Wolf] / Just playing life on hard mode
#003 | LinkPrime1 |
Read the topic title and I thought you were promoting bestiality...

Will actually read full post at a later time <_<;
Well, there is a new accent of n00b language. It's called: Vet LUEser goes Foreign!-MegaSpy22
Those must be the pants of the gods!-Digitalpython
#004 | HeyDude |
I read the full post and I thought about it. Sometimes I think rigor stinks because it's expected that "common sense" stuff has to be tested, instead of just new thoughts. I would think that since evolution is all about reproductive fitness, that it's obvious that sex would be one of the top associates.

But then we have your study here that seems to disprove that, giving it pretty dismal ratings as far as associativeness.
#005 | Dont Interrupt Me |
I think the caveats you've listed may be pretty significant. How good of an indicator is association with the word 'sex' itself for association with sexual ideas?
Was it a car or a cat I saw?
#006 | BUM | | (edited)
I think Di brings up a really good point.

Also, do you think sex is perhaps more associated with sentences or phrases? Like, how something is said? Hose is not suggestive. Grab is somewhat suggestive. Grab your hose is extremely suggestive. Or, play, is not suggestive. Even though it's part of foreplay. But "play with" can be suggestive, to some. Smash, no. Peanuts, not really. I smashed his peanuts... that makes us giggle.

Edit: removed sentence fragment.
#007 | Kodiologist |
From: Dont Interrupt Me | Posted: 3/4/2012 9:44:21 PM | #005
How good of an indicator is association with the word 'sex' itself for association with sexual ideas?

It's the best single indicator I can think of. It is a step removed from the real thing in the sense that, according to theory, the cue word first activiates the abstract concept of sex, which then activates the word "sex". There's no direct way to measure accessibility of the pure ethereal concept, of course, and I would guess that non-verbal measures (like penile tumesence) would be less sensitive, although they'd probably also be less affected by social desirability, which, admittedly, is pretty important in this context.

In an experiment, I guess I would use a lexical-decision task in which the target words were related to sexuality but were not as obvious as "sex", assuming I was trying to keep secret the study's sexual themes.

From: BUM | Posted: 3/4/2012 10:49:59 PM | #006
Also, do you think sex is perhaps more associated with sentences or phrases?

Sure. I'd explain that in terms of context biasing interpretation.

A classic study I should mention here is Swinney (1979), which looked at ambiguous words such as "bug" (it can mean "small arthropod" or "surveillance device"), acessibility of related words (such as "ant" or "spy"), and context. He found that at the moment a cue word was read, all words related to the cue were more accessible, as measured in a lexical-decision task, than unrelated words (like "sew") even when the word was in a disambiguating context (like "spiders, roaches, and other bugs"). Thus, it appears that when we initially process a word, anything that's related to it becomes at least a little more accessible, regardless of context.

Anyway, I think that accidental sexual innuedo is more interesting than euphemism. It's not surprising that people can be obscure and yet, by process of elimination, they can still be understood; it's more surprising that sexual interpretions of utterances that aren't intended to refer to sex spontaneously spring to mind.

Swinney, D. A. (1979). Lexical access during sentence comprehension: (Re)Consideration of context effects. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18(6), 645–659. doi:10.1016/S0022-5371(79)90355-4. Retrieved from http://lcnl.ucsd.edu/LCNL_main_page/Publications_PDF/1979_Swinney.pdf

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