New Delhi: With sex on their minds, people are more likely to change their attitudes and engage in deceptive self-presentation, research on sexual priming finds. In other words, they conform, embellish, and sometimes lie. The researchers hypothesized that sexual thoughts — or, in the researchers’ more precise terms, the activation of an individual's sexual system — would increase a person’s efforts to manage first impressions, bringing with it deceptive self-presentation.
What laypersons might describe as having sexual thoughts, researchers refer to more precisely as the activation of the sexual system or sexual priming. The phrase, “means getting people to think about things in a sexual way,” explains study co-author Harry Reis, a professor of clinical and social sciences at the University of Rochester.
“Technically it means activating a certain set of concepts in the brain. So, the parts of the brain that represent sexuality are being activated. But that doesn't necessarily mean that people are getting genitally aroused.”
Reis and coauthor Gurit Birnbaum, associate professor of psychology at the IDC Herzliya in Israel, tested that hypothesis on 634 students — 328 female and 306 male — with an average age of nearly 25, all of whom identified as heterosexual. Over the course of four studies, the psychologists exposed one group to sexual stimuli and the control group to neutral stimuli. Study participants, all students at an Israeli university, then interacted with a stranger of the other sex.
The first study asked two study participants at a time to solve a dilemma faced by a fictitious third person — whether to accept a job offer abroad or to reject the offer to stay close to family and friends. Both participants were assigned one specific position — one for and one against the move abroad — to argue in a face-to-face interaction. Afterwards, participants rated the extent to which they outwardly expressed agreement with the other participant’s position during the interaction.
Compared to participants in the control group (without prior sexual stimuli), participants who had been sexually primed were more likely to express agreement with a contrary opinion advocated by a participant of the other sex. The researchers interpret this behaviour as a strategy to make a favourable impression with the stranger, thereby increasing the likelihood of getting closer to this person.