Think about sex, change your mind

How does the possibility of sex influence how we present ourselves to others?
09 December 2019

Interview with 

Helen Keyes, Anglia Ruskin University


A cartoon brain outweighing a cartoon heart on a balance scale.


Could the possibility of sex influence how we present ourselves to others? A paper recently published by Gurit Birnbaum and her colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that - surprise surprise - yes we do! Anglia Ruskin University psychologist Helen Keyes, who wasn’t involved in the study, took Katie Haylor through the findings...

Helen - They were trying to find out whether we would change our own behaviour when we feel that we're around a potential sexual partner. First of all, what they looked at was whether showing people videos of people making out would make them more agreeable or give more ground in an argument with another person. So first of all, they divided participants into groups where one half would have seen videos of people making out, and the other half would have seen just control videos over a couple engaged in a conversation. And after this, heterosexual participants were paired with a stranger of the opposite sex and they were asked to role play a disagreement or an argument. People who had seen the sexual imagery or people who are sexually primed, reported giving more ground in that argument, and this was true for both men and women. Then they wanted to look at what happens when we're more subliminally primed. So this is quite interesting. Participants had to fill out quite a long dating questionnaire about themselves. Then half of these participants were subliminally shown sexual images of semi-naked men and women, and half of the participants were subliminally shown images of nature. And by subliminal, I mean these images were flashed up for less than 30 milliseconds. So participants weren't aware that this is happening.

Katie - Were they watching some... like, watching a film or something whilst these images were just flashing up?

Helen - They were doing a really innocent task of choosing between like Thai food and Italian food. Little did they know that they were seeing some saucy images. Following this, each person was shown another person's dating profile - an imaginary profile that the experimenters had manipulated. Then, the participant went to make their own dating profile, and what they found was those who had been subliminally shown sexual images, conformed much more. They brought their responses much more in line with the dating profile they'd just read. So, if they had initially been opposed to cuddling, they now, kind of, moved a little bit closer to cuddling on the cuddling scale. They conformed more if they'd been sexually primed, but not if they hadn't been sexually primed. And then finally they wanted to know about explicit untruths or lies we might tell about ourselves. So they looked at how we report how many sexual partners we've previously had. Interestingly, they asked people to either anonymously report this or report it in an online chat with a potential partner, who they thought, somebody they thought was a potential partner. And they found that for both men and women, people revised downwards the number of sexual partners they reported having if they were in the online chat compared to an anonymous forum. That's not surprising, but interestingly this was only for people who had watched sexually explicit material. So again, people who had been sexually primed had their sexual system activated, they reported downwards, both men and women, the number of partners they had. And this is just conforming again to what you would imagine the other person wants to hear.

Katie - What do you make of this?

Helen - I think it isn't surprising. I think it's largely harmless and quite a nice positive thing to think that we might accommodate other people, or we might engage in relationships with new people in a way that we think is going to establish that relationship, or encourage that bond between people. So it's actually quite a nice finding, but it also might tell us that maybe when we begin a relationship with somebody, or we are exploring that possibility with somebody, they may be presenting themselves in a way that they believe is conforming to what we would like of them, and to just bear that in mind when were are establishing that relationship.

Katie - Or indeed you might behave slightly differently to the way that you would truly feel about something?

Helen - Absolutely, and you'd hear people saying sometimes, Oh you know, you've really changed around this new person, and it's nice to have a study to say, well that's not that surprising and I'm engaging in really pro-social behavior here.


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