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Does lust make us stupid? Part II

Ross Bartels

At the 33rd ATSA conference, Jesse Bering (author of ‘Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us) gave an interesting opening keynote entitled ‘Does Lust Make us Stupid? The Effect of Sexual Arousal on Decision-Making’. This subject has clear relevance to the work undertaken by clinicians and researchers in the field of sexual offending. That is, it is likely to account (in part) for why some individuals engage in sexual activity with underage or non-consenting individuals. However, despite the importance of the topic, Bering argued that it has evaded empirical attention.

Bering described two seminal studies that investigated how decision-making processes are hijacked by sexual arousal. The first was conducted by Loewenstein, Nagin, and Paternoster (1997) and found that, compared to non-aroused controls, sexually aroused males were more likely to imagine acting in a sexually coercive manner on a date. The second study was conducted almost 10 years later by Ariely and Loewenstein (2006). Adopting a unique methodology, they found that, relative to non-aroused males, sexually aroused males reported being more willing to engage in sexual activity with a minor (i.e., a 12 year old girl), as well as other ‘questionable’ sexual activities (e.g., sexual contact with an animal). From these results, the authors suggest that contextual factors play a part in determining sexual interests.

However, Bering argued that these decisions – which appear ‘stupid’ by today’s standards – may actually reflect a ‘smart’, adaptive ability that evolved tens of thousands of years ago. As discussed in Bering’s book Perv, sexual activity in humans involves interacting with parts of the body that are high in bacteria. Sexual arousal, therefore, serves to temporarily switch-off our disgust-related sensitivity to such normally aversive features. In essence, sexual arousal evolved to help ensure one’s genes were passed on. However, as a by-product, other normally aversive behaviours (e.g., those that are immoral or risky) were open to becoming more appealing when in a state of sexual arousal. That’s the theoretical argument at least. Whether this is the case or not, the limited research discussed by Bering indicates that males are more willing to engage in sexually deviant behaviour when sexually aroused. He also pointed out that no research of this kind had been conducted with women.

I found this subject fascinating and full of potential in helping us to better understand sexual offending. So I had a quick search of the literature myself. It turns out there is actually more research on this topic than Bering suggests (including studies using female participants). I will give a brief overview of this literature, broken down by subthemes.

Sexual arousal and non-sexual decisions

Skakoon-Sparling (2011) found that men and women experiencing higher levels of sexual arousal displayed a greater willingness to male risky decisions on a modified game of Blackjack (see Skakoon-Sparling et al., 2014). Similarly, Laier et al. (2014) found that sexually aroused males made worse decisions on two modified versions of the Iowa Gambling Task. These studies support the idea that decision-making processes (in general) are hijacked by sexual arousal for both men and women, making impaired or risky decisions more likely. It’s also worth noting that a number of studies have demonstrated that viewing sexually attractive images of women lead males to discount the future (where non-sexual rewards are greater) in favour of more imminent decisions where the non-sexual rewards are comparably lower (Van der Bergh, Dewitte, & Warlop 2008; Wilson & Daly, 2004 . While these two particular studies did not measure sexual arousal, the authors speculate that the stimuli were “mildly arousing” and so likely activated “neural mechanisms associated with cues of sexual opportunity” (Wilson & Daly, 2004, p. S179).

Sexual arousal and disgust sensitivity

In a mixed sample of male and female participants, Koukounas and McCabe (1997) found that subjective sexual arousal towards erotic videos was negatively related to self-reported ‘disgust’ towards the videos: that is, the more aroused the participant, the less disgusting the participants found the videos. More recently, Lee, Ambler, and Sagarin (2014) found that sexual arousal (but not generic arousal) reduced sexual disgust in women (but not men). Supporting Bering’s theoretical position, these results partially explain how sexual arousal enables humans to circumvent the (evolutionary-based) contradiction of being motivated to procreate and avoid contamination/disease. It should be noted, however, that the story is more complex in women. For example, as discussed by Bering in his keynote, Fessler and Navarrete (2003) found ovulating women tend to find deviant sex to be more disgusting than those who are not ovulating and, thereby, are at lower risk of conception.

Sexual arousal and sexual disinhibition

In two well-controlled experimental studies (based on the work of Ariely and Loewenstein), Imhoff and Schmidt (2014) found that sexually aroused men and women were more likely to report an interest in uncommon, risky, and coercive sexual behaviours. This supported and extended the findings from the two seminal studies discussed by Bering.  A critical finding in this study was that sexual arousal only reduced sexual disinhibition; it did not disinhibit participants to non-sexual behaviours (e.g., stealing or spreading inaccurate rumours). Thus, Imhoff and Schmidt argue that the effects of sexual arousal are specific to sexual behaviour; a conclusion that is somewhat contradictory to the aforementioned studies regarding the hijacking of non-sexual decisions.

Sexual arousal and decisions about sexual coercion

In a recent study by Spokes et al. (2014), heterosexual males completed an assessment of working memory capacity (WMC; defined as the capacity to process and store information while performing complex mental tasks) and a date-rape analogue task. The latter involved identifying when the average male would stop their sexual advances in the face of verbal and/or physical resistance. The results showed that sexually aroused males with a lower WMC nominated later stopping points on the date-rape analogue task than males with higher WMC. They argue that executive control (particularly WMC) may play a crucial role in moderating men’s decision-making regarding sexually coercive behaviour.  In another recent study, Bouffard and Miller (2014) found that self-reported sexual arousal (in males) was significantly associated with an over-perception of a female’s sexual intent, and a decision to engage in sexually coercive behaviour.

Summary and implications

This body of research paints a clear and consistent picture: lust does seem to make us ‘stupid’. Thus, Bering was correct in highlighting the importance of the subject. However, it appears the topic is firmly under the academic spotlight, with a number of existing research studies exploring this issue. In summary, the findings indicate that the effects of sexual arousal increase the risk of impulsive/risky non-sexual decisions; and reduce inhibitions for atypical sexual behaviours (including deviant sexual behaviour). They also indicate that the effects of sexual arousal on decision-making occur in both men and women, and are influenced by individual differences (e.g., WMC).  I look forward to seeing how research on this topic moves forward and if/how it gets incorporated into clinical practice with sexual offenders.

Suggested citation:
Bartels, R. (2015, March 22). Does Lust Make Us Stupid? Part II. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-98


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