Monday, October 24, 2011

A Scientific Visit to Palmdale

During my years as an undergraduate I made a couple of bad choices, one of which was deciding to minor in economics. None of the classes were particularly engaging - which might be the understatement of the century - and the assumptions made by economists were blatantly ill-suited for dealing with people, most notably the assumptions of perfect information and people being rational - whatever rational was supposed to mean. For a field that claims to dabble in human behavior and psychology, you'd think their assumptions about what people are like would be a touch more accurate, but since that would make the math messy, the idea was seemingly scrapped.

So imagine my surprise when I heard some economists had started to figure out that human psychology exists and should probably be taken seriously. Dan Ariely's books were a breath of fresh air, reinforcing in me the notion that I had wasted my time in all those economics classes when I could have been doing something more worth my while, like taking classes biology. Or masturbating.

                                                            "Those classes weren't interesting, so I had to take matters into my own hands"

Speaking of which, would you lie to a woman about whether you loved her in order to increase the chance that she'd have sex with you? If you're a man, chances are your answer to that question depends on whether or not you're currently masturbating (if you are, this blog must either be especially interesting or especially boring. Feel free to let me know which). In fact, your answers to a whole slew of sex related questions will probably depend on whether or not you're giving yourself the ol' down-low. Ariely and Loewenstein (2006) decided to examine how answers to these questions change by paying undergraduate males to answer a few questions while doing what they were going to be doing anyway.

                                                  Turns out the only thing more dismal than economics are the dating prospects of male math majors

The main purpose of the research was to examine the gap between answers to questions made in an unaroused state versus an aroused one across three categories: (1) how appealing sexual objects or activities were viewed, (2) willingness to engage in morally questionable behavior to have sex, and (3) willingness to engage in unsafe sex when aroused. What do the answers of those 35 male undergrads tell us? They tell us two things: the first is that - unsurprisingly - the answers change when people are horny, relative to when they are not; the second thing is that these answers tend to change substantially. 

For the first category of how appealing certain sexual activities and objects are, of the 20 questions asked about, only three failed to become significantly more appealing: sex with a man, sex with the lights on, and spanking a sexual partner (though spanking was rated fairly highly to begin with). In fact, the only question to not see any increase was the one about having sex with the lights on. The five questions that saw the greater overall point increase (out of a total of 100) between the unaroused and aroused states where, in order: Would you find it exciting to have anal sex? (+31), Is just kissing frustrating? (+28), Would it be fun to tie up your sexual partner? (+28), Can you imagine having sex with a 50-year old woman? (+27), and Would you have a threesome with another man? (+25). Other questions included sex with a 12-year old girl (relatively 100% more appealing), sex with a 60-year old woman (about 230% more appealing), and getting sexually excited by an animal (about 170% more appealing, though still quite unappealing overall. It was second from the bottom, right above having sex with another man). 

So what about questions of morally questionable behavior? There are only five, so I'll rank order these in terms of percentage increase from unaroused to aroused: taking a date to a fancy restaurant to make her more likely to have sex (27% more likely); encouraging a date to drink (37% more likely); telling a woman you loved her to make her more likely to have sex (70% more likely); keep trying to have sex after a date says "no" (125% more likely); slipping a woman a drug (420% more likely). Interestingly, that order holds if you rank the behaviors in terms of their overall rated probability in the first place; the more coercive actions are less probable, but see the largest percentage increase.

                                 "Well, the fancy dinner and drinks aren't working. Is it time to start thinking about outright lying, or just skip right to the drugs?"

Finally, turning to matters of protection, the four questions regarding condoms all fall in the predicted direction: as men get aroused, they rate condoms as interfering with pleasure and spontaneity more, and say they'll be less likely to use them with new partners or if they think the woman might change her mind when they went to get one.    

Of course there are limitations here: these were only a few undergrads jerking it while answering questions. Surely, the first limitation is that the questions were probably a real buzz-kill. A second possible issue is that it's not entirely clear how these stated preferences would actually translate to behavior in the more social world where men aren't walking around with erections (most of the time, anyway), behaviors can carry real consequences, and reality differs from fantasy. That said, I'd wager we have every reason to think sexual arousal certainly has an effect on decision making, especially about condom use (since at this point many men probably already have erections in hand) and that one could even expect these effects to increase, depending on the perceived probability of having sex and the attractiveness of the other person.

How the effects of sexual arousal might tend to differ between men and women is certainly a question worth thinking about. I highly doubt we'd observe anything like the same pattern of answers for the questions asked about in the current survey (perhaps excluding the questions about condoms, though I can't say at the moment). It's an open-ended question as to whether the same methodology could even be effectively used, and I'd guess that it probably couldn't be - or at least wouldn't be nearly as effective.    

References: Ariely, D. & Loewenstien G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98

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