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In the Heat of the Moment

In the previous post I outlined type 1 and type 2 reasoning. I emphasized the strength of type 1, as it is much faster and rather salient compared to type 2. One reason why type 1 is so salient is the fact that it often is emotion-based and rather animalistic. In this post I’m going to explain what happens to our decision-making process when we activate our most primal emotion: sexual excitement. Talk about the beast within….

Ariely and Loewenstein (2006) researched the effect of sexual arousal (induced by self-stimulation) on judgments and hypothetical decisions made by male college students. Students were assigned to be in either a state of sexual arousal or a neutral state. In both states they were asked to 1) indicate how appealing they find a wide range of sexual stimuli and activities 2) report their willingness to engage in morally questionable behavior in order to obtain sexual gratification 3) describe their willingness to engage in unsafe sex when sexually aroused

I can go into each question individually but it might make more sense when I put the tables from the actual paper in. So you can actually see the (statistical) shift in responses.

The table above shows that, when aroused, the participants become much more eager to engage in sex, regardless of their sexual partner’s age, size, liking, gender and species (?!). And become more open to certain types of behaviour such as fetishes (shoes, smoking, urinating) and things such as BDSM. Having an increasingly open-mind towards older woman and (consensual!) engagement with fetishes does not seem too far-fetched when it comes to becoming increasingly sexually aroused. There is also absolutely nothing wrong with it.

However, this specific research would not have become so popular if it just highlighted positive behaviours within humanity. The table below indicates that this “eagerness” for sex, is not necessarily just opening up the mind to favour kinks, but also rather morally bankrupt behaviours:

As a someone who has engaged with the dating scene, being taken to a fancy restaurant as a motivator to “put out” is one thing, but to be fed increasing amounts of alcohol and maybe even drugs is another! It seems that when entering a state of sexual arousal the mind suddenly has a lot less issues with moral corruption than it did before. The increased responses seem to indicate so…

The last table below, shows participants’ willingness to engage in unsafe sex when sexually aroused. The unchanged response to the first question indicates that most men seem to know what’s up with regards to the female reproductive systems. Unfortunately, the rest of the questions show that when becoming increasingly aroused, they stop caring as much.

Now this article was not meant to put you off men. I am aware that the research by Ariely and Loewenstein (2006) was only conducted with male participants, and the results don’t look great….. But other research indicates this is a process occurring in both genders, and shows that risky sexual decision-making is strongly associated with being sexually active and how sensation-seeking and impulsive a person is. The students that were most likely to have made and continue to make risky sexual decisions were those who were already sexually active, and scored high on both sensation-seeking and impulsive decision-making. Risky decision-making when it came to sex was least likely to be done by students who were not sexually active and scored low on sensation-seeking and impulsive decision-making (Donohew et al, 2000). There was no effect of gender.

Moreover, there are limitations to the study, as outlined by Ariely and Loewenstein themselves. It is important to emphasize that all questions and answers in the study were hypothetical. No actual behaviour was observed. A second limitation that comes from not observing actual behaviour is that there is no way to see whether the predictions of the participants about their own behaviour are correct, regardless of whether they were aroused or not. A lot of research has been done that shows that people often wrongly predict how they would behave in a state different from the one they are in (Bouffard, 2002; Loewenstein, Nagin, & Paternoster, 1997). Ariely and Loewenstein do indicate that they suspect that the behavioural predictions made when aroused will be more accurate when it comes to predicting behaviour in the heat of the moment than the predictions made when not aroused. And that again becomes worrisome.

To then reduce that worry: the experiment suffers a lack of control over the experimental setting. Subjects conducted the experiment in the privacy of their own residence, which made a lot of sense for the task at hand (excuse the pun), but makes it difficult to ensure that all participants carefully and conscientiously carried out the instructions. Moreover, this research was done with a total sample of 35 male students. It is not like this research found out that each male on the northern hemisphere was trying to drug you to get into your pants.

So what does this research teach us? When it comes to intensely experienced emotions, we focus on our immediate benefits much more than future gains, or potentially costs when it comes to unsafe (or morally bankrupt..) sexual activity. To put this in context, this is something we also see when it comes to food consumption. Even when on a strict diet, it is difficult to resist when you can smell and see the freshly baked chocolate chip cookie (Ditto et al, 2006). So this is a phenomenon that stretches beyond the domain of sexual desire.

Ultimate conclusion: don’t make decisions in the heat of the moment. Just don’t. Try to base as many of your decisions on what you thought when not aroused. If you think you should use a condom before being aroused, definitely use one when aroused. And don’t let anyone ever pressure you into giving up your own values and morals when in the heat of the moment. Because in the end, each individual has to deal with the consequences of their own behaviour, whatever you do to yourself and to others.

Control your beast, and try to engage system 2!

References Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19(2), 87-98.

Bouffard, J. A. (2002). The influence of emotion on rational decision making in sexual aggression. Journal of Criminal Justice, 30, 121–134.

Ditto, P. H., Pizarro, D. A., Epstein, E. B., Jacobson, J. A., & MacDonald, T. K. (2006). Visceral influences on risk taking behavior. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19(2), 99–113.

Donohew, L., Zimmerman, R., Cupp, P. S., Novak, S., Colon, S., & Abell, R. (2000). Sensation seeking, impulsive decision-making, and risky sex: Implications for risk-taking and design of interventions. Personality and individual differences, 28(6), 1079-1091.

Loewenstein, G., Nagin, D., & Paternoster, R. (1997). The effect of sexual arousal on expectations of sexual forcefulness. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 34(4), 443-473.


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