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Why Boastful People Likely Aren't Virgins

Does strategic self-promotion really predict sexual promiscuity?

 Alejandra Quiroz/Stocksnap
Source: Source: Alejandra Quiroz/Stocksnap

Last week, when describing the psychology of bragging, I cited a recent study that linked boastfulness to sexual prowess. Finding that self-promoting people are more likely to report sexual promiscuity, the authors concluded that boastfulness has a likely evolutionary dimension. Braggarts, they say, have more sex and so are more likely to reproduce; ergo, in terms of evolution by sexual selection (in this case, quite directly), personal self-promotion appears to confer a clear evolutionary advantage.

However, let’s think about that for a moment. How, perchance, did the researchers acquire their data?

Well, like nearly every study that seeks to investigate sexual promiscuity, the researchers conducted a survey. And guess what, when completing surveys – especially ones concerning sexual activity -- people sometimes fail to be truthful in their responses.

As described by Psychology Today blogger Christopher Ryan PhD, this can be discerned from the anomalous finding that heterosexual men consistently report having more sexual intercourse and partners than heterosexual women. This suggests that men tend to report sexual encounters that never actually happen, whereas women tend to decline to report the full extent of theirs.

The Onion encapsulated this idea exceptionally well in their parody news report, ‘Teen Boys Losing Virginity Earlier And Earlier, Report Teen Boys’. As relayed by their newscaster:

In a survey, nearly one hundred per cent of boys, ages twelve to fifteen, report that they have sex all the time, and are definitely NOT virgins.

So, when researchers find boastful participants more likely to report sexual promiscuity, what is actually going on in that research? Drawing attention to one’s prolific sex life (even by way of exaggeration) is itself a form of boastfulness. Therefore, we should not be surprised that participants who self-describe as boastful are also found more likely to engage in sexual bragging.

(In the study, the link between self-promotion and promiscuous sexual behavior was stronger for men than for women. This is consistent with the notion that men and women differ in their tendency for sexual exaggeration.)

What we see here is not so much a correlation between two variables, or causation of one by the other, but a conflation of the two. Bragging does not truly ‘correlate’ with (or 'cause') sexual promiscuity. Rather, self-reported promiscuity is itself a feature of bragging.

So of course there will be a statistical link between the two entities featured in this research. Indeed there will be such a statistical link in any study that attempts to relate self-reported esteem with other self-report variables encapsulating indicators of that esteem.

This is because, statistically, every variable is associated with itself.

That boastfulness overlaps with self-reported promiscuity might sound like a true fact. In reality, though, it's a truism.

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