Sexuality has many odd and possibly pernicious effects on cognition and decision-making

Created 24 Dec 2012 • Last modified 26 Dec 2017

Experiments have demonstrated a wide variety of ways sexual emotion can influence how we think and decide. Importantly, such findings have been obtained even for non-sexual domains of behavior, and with very weak manipulations of sexual affect, such as the gender of a name. Sexuality then appears to have pervasive, albeit subtle, consequences for human thought. There is no clear overall theme to the findings, except, perhaps, that sexuality often influences us in ways we'd rather not be influenced.

Effects of sex cues on cognition and decision-making

The idea that sexual motives can perniciously influence one's judgments, decisions, or other cognitive processes is common among laypeople. Particularly well-known is the theme of people making bad decisions about people they're attracted to ("And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind"). Besides the issue of seeing one's beloved through rose-colored glasses, we take it for granted that intense sexual arousal, like any other emotion, can make us impulsive. Ariely and Loewenstein (2006) tested this idea experimentally. Subjects (all men) were asked questions such as "Can you imagine having sex with a 60-year-old woman?", "Would you use a condom even if you were afraid that a woman might change her mind while you went to get it?", and "Would you slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?". In one condition, subjects answered these questions while masturbating and looking at nudes. This manipulation succeeded in increasing subjects' stated openness to unconventional, dangerous, or unethical sex.

Part of the title of Ariely and Loewenstein (2006) is "the heat of the moment", and indeed, Ariely and Loewenstein's stated goal was to examine intense sexual arousal ("the heat") and sexual decision-making ("the moment"). But a body of research has accumulated that much weaker manipulations, like showing subjects swimsuit photographs (without having them masturbate at the same time), can be effective, and much more general classes of behavior can be influenced than decisions about sex. This is important for our sexual attitudes. We spend at most a little of our lives having sex or directly pursuing it, so findings limited to such circumstances are accordingly limited in their importance. By contrast, if mild sex cues of the sort we encounter every day, like attractive people, can make a difference for the sort of decisions we make every day, like how long to wait for a bus, this line of research is harder to dismiss. We're left with the impression that sexual affect can have pervasive, albeit subtle, consequences for human thought.

Risk-taking

First of all, Ditto, Pizarro, Epstein, Jacobson, and MacDonald (2006) gave men a role-playing scenario in which a woman was willing to have sex but no condom was available. Subjects who were presented with a video of the scenario instead of a textual description rated the situation as more sexually arousing and were more willing to have sex. Subjects' judgments of danger were not significantly affected.1 In Blanton and Gerrard (1997), on the other hand, men gave lower estimates of STD risk for more attractive women (so long as extra nondiagnostic information was available, presumably for motivated reasoning). Young and Jordan (2013) had subjects answer a questionnaire that included Facebook photos that were or were not sexually suggestive ("e.g., kissing, flirting with the camera, wearing revealing clothing, groping of other individuals in the photo"; p. 244). Subjects exposed to the suggestive pictures rated themselves as more likely to have unprotected sex, perhaps because they also reported greater "perceived peer prevalence of unprotected sex" (Young & Jordan do not quote the exact questions subjects were asked).2

Several studies have examined the evolutionary-psychological idea that men take risks to attract women. Ronay and von Hippel (2010) performed a field experiment in which male skateboarders were watched by a male experimenter or an attractive female experimenter. Subjects were less likely to abort difficult tricks when they were observed by the woman. Lest you think such a result could be explained by some skateboarder stereotype, Dreber, Gerdes, and Gränsmark (2013) analyzed a database of expert chess games. Male players chose riskier opening moves against more attractive female opponents. Interestingly, in neither of these two studies did the increased risk-taking seem to improve overall performance; if anything, performance decreased in Dreber et al. (2013). Back in the laboratory, Frankenhuis, Dostsch, Karremans, and Wigboldus (2010), taking a cue from Dutton and Aron (1974), had men play a virtual-reality game in which they crossed "an ominous bridge over a steep valley". Subjects traversed the bridge faster when the experimenter was female and a game character who observed the subject was female (and wore a halter top, compared to the male character's full shirt).

While this peacocking may seem stupid, it isn't mindless: effects on male risk-taking by female observers can be influenced by variables relevant to courtship. For example, in Frankenhuis and Karremans (2012), men read a newspaper article saying that women are attracted to men who are either cautious or take risks. In a subsequent gambling task with a female experimenter, men who were single took riskier bets when the article lauded risk-taking, whereas romantically involved men behaved in the opposite fashion. In Baker and Maner (2009), subjects were male or female, they saw a video of an opposite-sex partner who was either engaged to be married or looking for someone, and they thought their behavior in a gambling task would or would not be observed by the partner. Risk-taking increased only among male subjects who thought they would be observed by a romantically available partner.3

In Knutson, Wimmer, Kuhnen, and Winkielman (2008), men saw a photograph and then decided between a one-dollar gamble and ten-cent gamble, each with equal odds of winning and losing. Pictures of "erotic couples" (which, if the figures are honest, consisted of opposite-sex couples kissing with suggestions of nudity but no genitalia shown), compared to pictures of household appliances, made men choose the risky gamble more often. This study is perhaps the clearest demonstration of an effect of sexual stimuli on risk-taking, since the manipulation involved no observer, just an erotic picture, and the dependent variable was simple, non-sexual, and entirely unrelated to the manipulation.

There's even a finding of this kind in animals. In Kavaliers, Choleris, and Colwell (2001) and Kavaliers et al. (2008), male mice became bolder when they were briefly exposed to the odor of a novel estrous female, "bolder" in the sense that they avoided the odor of a predator (a cat or a weasel) less. On the other hand, in Experiment 2 of Godin and Dugatkin (1996), the presence of a female guppy made certain male guppies avoid a predator more.

Intertemporal choice and time perception

Decision-making under uncertainty is the primary economic manifestation of risk-taking. In behavioral economics, a closely related topic is intertemporal choice, the task of deciding between rewards with different delays of receipt. For example, a subject might have to choose whether to get $10 today or $11 tomorrow. Patience is defined using the exchange rates between dollars of reward and days of delay implied by a subject's choices. In Van den Bergh, Dewitte, and Warlop (2008), men who looked at swimsuit photos (compared to landscapes) or inspected brassieres (compared to T-shirts) were less patient in intertemporal-choice tasks. Wilson and Daly (2004) used subjects of both genders and compared attractive to unattractive opposite-sex faces. Men were less patient after seeing the attractive faces; for women, there was a non-significant trend in the same direction.

A lot of variables ought to go into intertemporal choice, from subjects' sensitivity to reward differences to their saving goals, but Kim and Zauberman (2013) found evidence that it is time perception in particular that's affected by sex cues. Men looked at lingerie photos or at pictures of objects like rocks and trees, then expressed the subjective distance they felt from two future times (3 months in the future and 6 months in the future) by adjusting the length of a string. Subjects who saw the lingerie photos judged these distances as longer, and this difference in time perception statistically mediated (i.e., was capable of accounting for) the effect of the manipulation on intertemporal choice. So, this study suggests that sex cues make people less patient because they make delays seem longer.

General cognitive performance

A comic strip in which Charlie Brown nervously introduces himself to a "pretty girl" as "Brownie Charles".

Figure 1. Peanuts strip for 27 July 1990 by Charles Schulz.

The trope of men getting flustered by women has been experimentally demonstrated. Karremans, Verwijmeren, Pronk, and Reitsma (2009) had subjects perform a fast-paced, cognitively demanding task before and after a short conversation with another person. In Study 1, the task was a 2-back task: subjects watched a stream of letters of the alphabet, presented one at a time, and had to remember whether each letter matched the letter that was presented two trials previously. In Study 2, the task was to watch a stream of words and to indicate whether its meaning was positive or negative if it was white and its color if it was blue or green. Men (but not women) got slower at the task after interacting with a woman (but not a man), and the greater their self-reported concern with impression management during the conversation, the greater the impairment. Nauts, Metzmacher, Verwijmeren, Rommeswinkel, and Karremans (2012) got similar effects with even weaker manipulations. Cognitive performance was measured with the Stroop task, which requires subjects to name the font color a word is printed in even when the word is the name of a different color. In Study 1, being given instructions over instant messages by an experimenter named "Lisa" (but not "Bas", a typical Dutch male name) who supposedly observed the subject during another task worsened men's (but not women's) performance on the Stroop task. In Study 2, merely expecting a future task in which the subject would be observed by Danielle (but not Daan) worsened men's (but not women's) performance.

Laier, Schulte, and Brand (2013) had heterosexual-identified men look at 100 photographs of sexual activity, then complete a test of short-term memory. The test had four blocks, each requiring subjects to recognize a different type of photograph: neutral (e.g., people walking in the street), negative (e.g., a mugging), positive (e.g., smiling grandparents), and coitus. Subjects' recognition was impaired in the coitus condition compared to the other three, non-sexual conditions.

Aggression

At odds with the lay notion that sex and violence are opposites (think of the slogan "Make love, not war"), there is some evidence that sex cues make people more aggressive. (For rape and other forms of sexual abuse, see the next chapter.)

Allen, D'Alessio, and Brezgel (1995) conducted a meta-analysis (i.e., a study that tries to quantitatively integrate the findings of a large number of past studies) of experiments in which subjects viewed sexual stimuli of some kind and then had some opportunity to be aggressive. Overall, sexual stimuli, compared to control stimuli, increased aggression. This seemed to hold regardless of (1) the gender of the subject and (2) the gender of the target of the subject's aggression. The type of stimulus, on the other hand, seemed to make a difference. Depictions of nudity without sexual activity actually decreased aggression, whereas depictions of sexual activity, especially violent such depictions, increased aggression.

Ainsworth and Maner (2012) had subjects write about an experience of intense sexual desire or an experience of intense happiness. Then subjects played a game in which they could give their opponent a painful burst of white noise when they won a trial. This game is a common laboratory measure of aggression: for each noise blast, subjects choose the duration and volume, which serve as the dependent variables. Men (but not women) whose ostensible opponent was male and who were less sexually restricted (according to a questionnaire with items like "Sex without love is OK") delivered louder and longer noise blasts when they were sex-primed.4 Interestingly, the effect of the sex prime disappeared when men were told they'd surpassed their opponent on a few tests (ostensibly tests of intelligence, creativity, and strength).

Griskevicius et al. (2009) asked subjects what they would do if somebody of the same gender "carelessly spills a drink on you and does not apologize". The sexual manipulation, such as it was, had subjects read a story in which they had a romantic and enjoyable date. For female subjects, this prime increased their stated likelihood of being indirectly aggressive against the drink-spiller, as by "talk[ing] behind this person's back". For male subjects, when the drink-spilling was observed by an audience of men (but not of women), the sex prime increased their stated likelihood of being directly aggressive, as by striking the person.

Mussweiler and Förster (2000) had subjects complete word-search puzzles that for the sex-primed group contained some mildly sexual words, such as "Haut" (German for "skin") and "steif" ("stiff"). Men (but not women) asked to throw darts at one of four targets, two of which were faces and two of which were objects, were more likely to choose faces when they were sex-primed. Men (but not women) also chose less-pleasant photographs (e.g., a rotting corpse instead of a puppy) for another participant to look at when they were sex-primed (but mysteriously, and contrary to Ainsworth & Maner, 2012, this worked only when the purported other participant was female). On the other hand, women (but not men) judged a man (but not a woman) described in a vignette as more aggressive when they were sex-primed.

In Roney (2003), men examined some magazine advertisements containing pictures of either young or old female models. The young models increased self-reported feelings of aggression.

Purchases and charity

In a sense, sex sells. Reichert (2002) found that sexual content in advertisements increased stated purchase intentions in most of the studies he reviewed. Perhaps more interesting are two field experiments. Bertrand, Karlan, Mullainathan, Shafir, and Zinman (2010) sent junk mail advertising a loan. Among the many variables manipulated was whether a photograph of a face appeared in the advertisement and the gender and race of the face. A female photo increased the chance of male recipients applying for a loan, whereas women were not significantly affected by the photograph. Landry, Lange, List, Price, and Rupp (2006) had college students solicit donations door-to-door for one Center for Natural Hazards Mitigation Research. Among female solicitors, more attractive solicitors got more people to donate. A similar result was obtained in the lab by Van Vugt and Iredale (2013): men who were observed or thought they were being observed by attractive women (compared to attractive men or no audience) donated more in a public-goods game and volunteered to spend more hours helping a charity. These findings of sex cues increasing generosity, like some of the risk-taking literature discussed earlier and perhaps even findings of increased purchases (using the idea of conspicuous consumption), can be construed as peacocking.

What about women?

In the above literature review, you may have noticed that women appeared as stimuli more often than as subjects. When women were included, the trend was for no significant effect of the manipulation to appear (but see 1). The overall picture is that male sexuality is more sensitive to these effects. Perhaps this is a consequence of how, in general, men have stronger sexual motivation than women (Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001). But other explanations are possible, which brings us to the issue of explaining the existence of these effects to begin with.

Possible explanations

The findings reviewed above, although they share certain themes, are heterogeneous. Besides the wide variety in manipulations and dependent measures I've discussed, I've smoothed over some difficult-to-interpret details: for example, Karremans et al. (2009) found no significant effect of whether subjects were in a relationship, although the findings of Frankenhuis and Karremans (2012) would suggest otherwise. So I deem it likely that there is no single common root cause. Here's a list of candidate explanations, some combination of which will hopefully suffice. As in the chapter on evolution, I won't make an earnest attempt to judge relative credibility because the literature is too fragmented and incomplete for me to do this with much confidence.

  • Men are inclined to show off to women in various ways. This inclination is smart enough that it can be influenced by the sexual availability of a woman but dumb enough that it can be triggered at least a little by mere photographs of women.
  • Men are inclined to attack other men who threaten their social status. This inclination is triggered by sex cues because competition over women is the reason this inclination exists.
  • Sex cues are distracting, attenuating mental abilities such as self-control by consuming some kind of cognitive resource. (Reichert, 2002, found that sex in advertising can backfire by reducing memory for such information as the brand name. Similarly, Bushman, 2005, found that sexual themes in television programs made accompanying ads less effective.) Cognitive resources could be consumed by mindless elaboration of sexual imagery (which phenomenally manifests itself as intrusive sexual thoughts5), by the effort of restraining inappropriate sexual behavior (like groping strangers), or by impression management.
  • Sex cues trigger a general change in behavior in favor of approach (and action) over avoidance (and restraint).
  • Sex cues trigger a general change in cognition in favor of concrete details over abstract generalities (see Förster, Özelsel, & Epstude, 2010, and Epstude & Förster, 2011;6 but notice that lust and love are often contrasted in these studies, whereas, in this chapter, I've conflated these concepts).
  • Sexual stimuli, like anything else that's appealing, can trigger motivated reasoning (see Arfer & Luhmann, 2013, for a case of motivated reasoning induced by a food stimulus).

Other open questions

Notice that which of the listed explanations are correct isn't the only theoretical tangle of interest here. Some important additional questions are:

  • How specific are these effects to sexuality? Are they specific to sexual affect, or are they a general property of arousal,7 or are they a general property of "basic motivations" like desire for food, or are they a general property of approach motivation?
  • What about culture? Even if evolutionary psychologists are right in thinking that the key psychological mechanisms at play are innate, it seems likely that the gender roles and sexual attitudes endorsed by a culture can have some influence of their own.
  • What about sexual preferences? For example, would men attracted to men be affected by pictures of men just as most men are affected by pictures of women?
  • What about sexual experience? Are more experienced people (people who have sex or masturbate more) sensitized and therefore more vulnerable, or desensitized and therefore less vulnerable?
  • What about other individual differences? Do people vary widely in their vulnerability to these effects in ways not predictable by variables like gender and age?

Why should we care about these effects?

So what? What can we glean from this motley bunch of citations? What's the moral of the story?

Perhaps the most important moral is that sexuality, however subtle, is not trivial. If you don't want to deal with sex or relationships or in-laws, fine, you can abstain; on the other hand, there's no clear way to entirely avoid these many strange influences of sexual motivation. Think of the effects in terms of "mental contamination", which Wilson and Brekke (1994) define as "the process whereby a person has an unwanted judgment, emotion, or behavior because of mental processing that is unconscious or uncontrollable. By unwanted, we mean that the person making the judgment would prefer not to be influenced in the way he or she was…" (p. 117) Psychological research tells us that our lives are teeming with mental contamination of all sorts. As Wilson and Brekke point out, correcting for mental contamination is no small feat: one must be aware that the contamination exists in the first place, motivated to correct for it, cognizant of the direction and magnitude of the bias (or else one might overcompensate, or compensate in the wrong direction), and able to change one's behavior appropriately. The weakness of human introspection (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977) implies that this is, in practice, impossible. And thinking that mental contamination poses no threat to you might make the problem worse. In Study 3 of Nordgren, van Harreveld, and van der Pligt (2009), smokers led to believe they had better self-control accepted greater temptation in a self-control game (for a greater monetary reward) and were more likely to lose the game. Study 4, a nonexperimental 4-month longitudinal study, examined smokers who'd just quit. Smokers with greater self-control beliefs didn't avoid temptation as much and were more likely to relapse. I'd speculate that, similarly, trivializing mental contamination could make you complacent about it, making you more likely to expose yourself to sources of it and thereby aggravate the harm.

The worst-case possibility can be caricatured as follows: sexual feelin's make you careless, impatient, stupid, and violent, and the most you can do about it is avoid sex cues, and good luck with that in the world we live in.

But actually, before we even try to avoid or compensate for these influences, we might ask whether they are, in fact, bad. After all, whereas some of the effects seem clearly undesirable, like increased aggression, and some are of dubious value, like altered time perception, some seem beneficial, like increased generosity. The truth is that while psychology experiments are excellent for identifying the motivational forces underlying behavior and what directions those forces push people in, they're poorly suited to quantifying the real-life consequences of those forces, and such quantification is what we need for real-life decision-making.

Imagine, for example, that the executives at some business, upset with the underrepresentation of women among their employees, decide to recruit women more aggressively, and they succeed in balancing the sex ratio. We can expect that this change will make the male employees a bit more aggressive and a bit more generous. But how will these changes compare to each other in magnitude? And is it possible that the aggression could be ultimately good for the business (by making the men more effective salesmen) and the generosity be ultimately bad (by making the men too eager to make sacrifices)? And how will the effects of the women on the men compare to the effects of the men on the women? If the executives were deciding whether to recruit more women to begin with, and they wanted to meaningfully apply the research I've discussed in this chapter, they'd need to be able to estimate answers to these questions (not to mention weigh these concerns properly against all other relevant concerns, from ethics to tax consequences). And in order to make such estimates, they'd need much fancier research than what exists now. For starters, they'd need explicit statistical models of the effects of arbitrary sex cues on arbitrary behavior. That's the kind of sophistication that I doubt psychology will achieve in my lifetime.

Anyway, the point of this thought experiment is: it's not totally clear whether the odd consequences of sexual motivation are good or bad for the human race, and it won't be totally clear anytime soon. In the meantime, I have a few suggestions. Don't hang up swimsuit calendars in offices. Dress modestly in public. And be wary of the idea that sex is necessarily good.

References

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Notes

1

All findings of no significant difference discussed in this book (and, indeed, anywhere) should be interpreted with the statistical fact kept in mind that failure to reject a null hypothesis is not evidence in favor of the null hypothesis. In lay terms: if I fail to get a statistically significant difference between two groups in my study, I'm not justified in concluding that the groups are the same. Thus, a finding of no significant difference has no straightforward interpretation.

2

There are two other studies in which the sexual manipulation was not directly related to the judgments asked of subjects, but the dependent variable was still the subject's willingness to have sex without a condom. Ebel-Lam, MacDonald, Zanna, and Fong (2009), who had men in the experimental group read a pornographic story with lingerie photos, found an effect of this manipulation combined with alcohol intoxication together, but no main effects, perhaps because the video used for the task was too sexually appealing on its own. Maisto, Palfai, Vanable, Heath, and Woolf-King (2012), who used MSM as subjects and "mildly erotic film clips" as the sexual manipulation, found an effect on subjects' ability to "negotiate sexual situations" but not on willingness to have unprotected sex.

3

Study 1 of Shan et al. (2012) is interesting in that female subjects were found to take less risks when observed by men. But I'm nervous about this paper because the data analysis includes a no-observer condition that isn't described in the method section.

4

But also (Ainsworth & Maner, 2012, p. 825):

We did observe an unpredicted effect of the mating prime among women, such that restricted women became more aggressive toward a male partner. Restricted women tend to avoid intimate encounters with strangers (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). Thus, one speculative interpretation is that having been primed with mating, restricted women may have viewed their male partner as a potential sexual threat; however, this finding should be interpreted with caution and requires replication.

5

For evidence that intrusive sexual thoughts are extremely common, at least among young men, see Cameron and Biber (1973). For a review of the idea that intrusive thoughts (as part of a larger construct of craving) can play an influential role in behavior, see Kavanagh, Andrade, and May (2005).

6

A previous version of this chapter had also cited Förster (2010), but it may have used fake data; see Peeters, Klaassen, and van de Wiel (2015).

7

Kim and Zauberman (2013) found the temporal-perception result I discussed earlier for frightening stimuli as well as for sexual stimuli. Now, the subtlety of some of the manipulations I've reviewed might seem to argue against arousal being involved. It's difficult to believe that the men in Mussweiler and Förster (2000) got erections from finding the word "stiff" in a word-search puzzle. But we can take the concept of arousal further if, like Toates (2009), we conceive of arousal as a covert mental construct, like sadness, rather than equating it with physiological variables like penile tumescence and heart rate.