We like to think we are rational creatures, harnessing the power of reason to navigate the risks of the world. It’s a good story, and it’s not hard to see why we like to think of ourselves as Homo bigbrainium. Although we are certainly capable of using reason and intellect to do make good decisions, it’s not how we really do things usually. Our intellect can be powerful, but can also be slow and cumbersome when it comes to all the myriad decisions we face each day. Instead, we usually rely on our feelings to guide us through the world, providing a quick and easy, though sometimes error prone, way of dealing with risks. Our feelings provide us with alarms about many of the risks we face, warning us off when the risks are too great. But factors with a big enough reward can override the alarms, and sex overrides the alarms in a big way.
Reproduction is a fundamental part of human biology, as it is for every other living thing, and sex is a big part of this. Evolution is superb at selecting for anything that moves reproduction forward, which might explain why sex drives us beyond all reason. Sex and reproduction are not always directly linked for humans, but sex slams our reward centers because evolution has made it that way, overriding our alarms, and driving us to take risks we might steer away from if our intellect was calling the shots.
There are plenty of examples throughout nature of the power of sex to drive risk taking. Moths release pheromones, attracting mates across many miles and luring moths into bug traps as they blindly and instinctively pursue sex. Male stickleback fishes instinctively attack other males with red bellies who impinge on the nests they build to attract females, and will do this even for a simplified fish model on a stick, as long as the fake male is red on its belly. Mammals also engage in a great range of risk taking in pursuit of mates, including aggressive competition by male primates in some species, including perhaps humans. One explanation for why men have shorter lives than women is that their lives are shortened by risk-related competitive behavior.
Psychology researchers Hart Blanton and Meg Gerrard looked into how men see risks related to women. Forty male students were given information about hypothetical women like the number of sexual partners they had, whether or not they used condoms, and pictures selected to be either very attractive or less attractive. Then the men were asked to judge the risks these women would present for the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases in a sexual encounter. The more attractive women were consistently judged by the men to be lower risk. The men’s ability to judge risk was skewed by a pretty face.
This might not be all that surprising, but the implications are important. If a picture is all it takes to blind us to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, imagine how our risk perceptions are overwhelmed in the heat of the moment. You can tell people about the statistics for STDs all night long, but the impact might be easily lost after a few drinks with an attractive, actual person. “It is our hypothesis that behavioral motivations often undermine a rational risk assessment, such that people construct vulnerability perceptions that will justify the desired response to a situation,” wrote Blanton and Gerrard in their paper.
If our feelings tell us that we want something bad enough, we will go for it, and work backward from there using our intellect to justify it, minimizing the risk in our mind. Maybe we need our feelings to override our intellect at times, leading us to take risks. Taking risks is an inherent part of who we are, including our interactions with the opposite sex, but the rewards of being with someone, sexually or otherwise, often outweigh the risks, it seems. Our intellect might have a hard time understanding this, but our feelings get the value of taking risks loud and clear.
Glenn Croston is the author of “The Real Story of Risk: Adventures in a Hazardous World”, exploring how human nature distorts how we react to the many risks we face all around us. Croston is also the author of “Gifts from the Train Station”, exploring the healing power of working for the greater good, and “75 Green Businesses You Can Start to Make Money and Make a Difference”.