Sex Inspires Dishonesty in Both Men and Women

Both men and women lie to make themselves more desirable to potential mates.

Posted Sep 24, 2020

We Vibe Wow Tech/Unsplash
Source: We Vibe Wow Tech/Unsplash

New research by Birnbaum et al. (2020) shows that when primed with sexual stimuli, both men and women lie to potential new partners in order to make themselves seem more similar and more desirable.

In a series of four experiments, heterosexual participants were consciously or unconsciously primed with either sexual stimuli or neutral stimuli. The unconscious sexual stimuli included subliminal photographs depicting a naked man or woman, which were presented for 30 milliseconds and then masked. The conscious sexual stimuli were sexual videos depicting a naked man and woman kissing. Neutral stimuli included non-sexual photographs and videos.

In response to the conscious stimuli, participants in the sexual stimuli conditions reported stronger feelings of sexual arousal than participants in the neutral stimuli conditions. The participants reported their attitudes on a variety of measures as well as an assessment of their lifetime number of sexual partners. Attitudes were measured both before and after seeing their partner’s supposed preferences while the lifetime number of sexual partners was measured both in an anonymous survey and in a profile, which participants were told would be shown to their attractive opposite-sex partners.

The results of the experiments showed that both men and women changed their attitudes to match their partner’s attitudes, and this effect was strengthened in the sexual priming condition. Priming participants to think about sex (either consciously or unconsciously) made them more likely to modify their attitudes to match the attitudes they thought their partners held. Similarity is positively related to liking. Therefore, making oneself appear more similar to a potential partner could increase liking. However, because attitudes can change truthfully for any number of reasons, the authors could not confidently label this apparent attitude change as deceptive.

Therefore, the researchers also investigated a variable which could not truthfully change during the course of the experiment: the lifetime number of sexual partners. These results more strongly indicated dishonesty; both men and women lowered the number of lifetime sexual partners they reported in the profiles which were supposed to be shared with their partners versus their reports on the anonymous surveys. Once again, this effect was stronger in the sexual priming condition; when participants were primed with sexual imagery, they lowered their self-reported number of sexual partners even more in their profiles versus the anonymous surveys.

The researchers suggest that sexual arousal motivates individuals to try to make themselves seem more desirable in order to maximize their chances of acceptance by new potential partners. However, the authors also emphasize that individuals are likely to keep the magnitude of their dishonesty small in case a long-term relationship develops, and those deceptions are eventually revealed. The authors conclude that when meeting a potential new partner for the first time, “disclosure is less likely to reflect the true self following sexual activation, as sexual arousal may make people more focused on saying what needs to be said to create a positive impression while being less cognizant of the potential long-term costs of this tendency.”

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Birnbaum, G. E., Iluz, M., & Reis, H. T. (2020). Making the right first impression: Sexual priming encourages attitude change and self-presentation lies during encounters with potential partners. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 86, 103904.