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Sexual Attraction and Survival Mode

Survival-mode emotional states can act as unconscious sexual lures.

A recent television commercial for Axe body spray is more revealing about human relationships than most of us probably realize. The commercial portrays a fragrance so potent that people who are exposed to its scent—young, attractive, and often scantily-clad people, it turns out—create chaos and destruction as they become caught in mutual erotic attractions. A wheelchair carrying an elderly man rolls into traffic as the attending nurse is suddenly drawn to another man presumably wafting the powerful scent. Cars, buses, and motorcycles swerve and crash as drivers and pedestrians compulsively obey their sudden erotic fixations. As the landscape becomes increasingly apocalyptic, with sirens blaring and flames spilling from overturned vehicles, the attractive young women and men continue even more actively to approach, visually scan, and sniff each other with obvious carnal intent.

Although the commercial itself mainly has a comedic intention, it highlights a phenomenon that is only too real. Scent, as everyone knows, can certainly be a powerful sexual lure—as can, of course, raw physical attraction. But, as bizarre as it may initially sound, another powerful, although typically unconscious, lure that we can all experience is when "survival-mode" emotional states are triggered in us.

Perhaps the ultimate survival-mode situation, which is somewhat reminiscent of this particular Axe commercial, is warfare, where the primal terror of death or physical annihilation is not only repeatedly activated, but also fully justified by the often perilous circumstances. The journalist and war correspondent Chris Hedges has written of the "frenetic lust" that is typically part of the wartime landscape, and has noted how the violence and chaos of war often lead even the most conservative or sheltered men and women to "give themselves over to wanton carnal relationships." In the Axe commercial, as the landscape becomes increasingly chaotic, Elvis Presley tenderly sings, "I can’t help falling in love with you" in the background. But in wartime—and presumably in the commercial, as well—such impulsive liaisons are rarely about love.

Some psychology experiments have shown similar, although more subtle, effects. One such study took place in Vancouver, British Columbia at the Capilano suspension bridge, which dangles two hundred and thirty feet over a river canyon and can sway noticeably when you walk across it. The study showed that a group of men who became especially anxious or afraid when crossing the bridge were far more likely to find a particular woman sexually attractive than were men who crossed nearby bridges that weren’t nearly as scary, and who thus did not become noticeably anxious upon crossing the bridge. Other studies have similarly shown that women who become anxious are more likely to find particular men to be attractive. Something about the state of fear or anxiety, in other words, appears to make many of us more likely to experience feelings of sexual attraction towards other people.

Such a tendency may have originally evolved to encourage us to connect with or attach to other people when our survival is at risk. Forming a sudden bond or connection to others could likely improve our chances of surviving in certain threatening or emergency situations, such as negotiating a swaying bridge that in prehistoric times could well have been highly dangerous. In hunter-gatherers, this tendency is probably quite functional, in the sense that it tends to serve survival and well-being. However, as the last post discussed, because our genes, brains, and bodies are almost exclusively designed biologically for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, when any of us live in environments—such as modern cities—that are very different from the hunter-gatherer environments of our ancestors, we become highly prone to a number of dysfunctional "evolutionary mismatch" effects. And, unfortunately, one of the most prominent evolutionary mismatch effects is that our brains can readily be tricked into thinking that our survival is at risk when we are, in reality, quite safe. This particular mismatch effect seems to be the key to destructive romantic relationships.

People who are in destructive or unhappy relationships very often trigger each other into old traumas and into various distressing, survival-mode emotional states associated with those traumas. One common feature of survival-mode emotional states like fear or anxiety is that they activate a stress response that will release stress hormones into the brain. As Todd Ritchey and I have suggested, a great deal of evidence indicates that stress hormones—which include endorphin, the brain’s primary "pleasure" chemical—can provide unconscious biochemical rewards in the brain. Thus the great majority of people in modern life, we have proposed, develop literal biochemical addictions to various negative, or survival-mode, emotional states and to the stress hormones that these emotional states are known to release.

Strong sexual desire, although hardly what most of us would think of as a "survival-mode" or "fight-or-flight" response, has also been shown, perhaps surprisingly, to activate all the main components of the so-called ‘stress’ response. What may, therefore, happen biochemically in the brains of people who are noticeably anxious or afraid, for example, is that the stress hormones released in the brain by the anxiety or fear may mingle with, and enhance the effects of, the stress hormones and other neurochemicals that are involved in sexual desire. Since all survival-mode states appear to release stress hormones in the brain, any such state can therefore potentially become confused with sexual desire, or can heighten any authentic sexual attraction or desire that may already exist. Thus if at least some other factors—such as raw physical appeal—are present that attract two people to each other, stress hormones from survival-mode states they may be experiencing can potentiate the stress hormones from the actual sexual attraction and generate an extra "charge" that may masquerade as love or as an intense, extra-special attraction.

A young woman, for example, may have had a father who insulted and criticized her a lot, who made her feel inferior or "less than" in various ways from a very young age. If this woman meets a man who triggers that feeling of "less than" in her, and especially if she finds the man authentically attractive in other ways, the addictive charge of "less than" may mingle unconsciously with the charge of physical attraction to generate a potent chemical cocktail in her brain and body that she may interpret as: "I am really, really drawn to this guy. My heart races whenever I’m with him!"

It’s true that our hearts can race when we’re joyfully excited, or when we’re truly in love. But our hearts can also race when we’re afraid, when we’re angry, or when we feel insulted or diminished. The truth in this particular example may well be that the extra-special attraction this woman is experiencing is generated in significant part by biochemical addiction. Her brain, in effect, is being tricked and befogged by her "less-than" addiction.

In this way, many of us—particularly those of us who grew up amid dysfunction that we haven’t yet fully processed or become fully aware of—can enter into relationships with people who repeatedly trigger negative emotions in us that are associated with our old traumas. Addiction to these emotional states can either masquerade as a loving attachment to the person, or can form a potent cocktail with true feelings of love, thus corrupting any authentic love that may actually exist in the relationship.

Is it possible to distinguish addiction from authentic love? Yes, it is. We’ll talk about this in the next post.


Dutton, D. G. & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 30(4), 510-517.

Hedges, C. 2002. War is a force that gives us meaning. New York: Anchor Books.

Montgomery, J. & Ritchey, T. 2010. The Answer Model: A new path to healing. Santa Monica, CA: TAM Books.

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